US & World

Threat of shutdown looms large over budget debate

U.S. Speaker of the House Rep. John Boehner (R-OH) listens during his weekly briefing on Feb. 10, 2011 on Capitol Hill in Washington, DC.
U.S. Speaker of the House Rep. John Boehner (R-OH) listens during his weekly briefing on Feb. 10, 2011 on Capitol Hill in Washington, DC.
Alex Wong/Getty Images

Listen to story

Download this story 1.0MB

President Obama sent his proposed budget for next year to Capitol Hill this week. But before lawmakers deal with that spending blueprint, they first have to settle a big fight over how to keep the federal government's lights burning for the rest of this year.

A stopgap funding measure expires in two weeks, and House Speaker John Boehner wants to replace it with one that carves out tens of billions of dollars from current spending levels. The Democrats who run the Senate are balking amid growing talk of an imminent government shutdown.

Boehner did little to tamp down speculation about the first government shutdown since the mid-1990s when he appeared on NBC last Sunday. Asked if he was willing to rule out such a shutdown, he would only say this: "Our goal is to reduce spending; it is not to shut down the government."

At a news conference at the Capitol a couple of days later, Boehner was asked whether the spending reductions Republicans were seeking might end up putting even more people out of work. He acknowledged this was indeed possible.

"Since President Obama has taken office, the federal government has added 200,000 new federal jobs," he said. "And if some of those jobs are lost in this, so be it. We're broke."

Democrats pounced. "You can't say 'so be it' when it comes to the well-being of the American people," said House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, Boehner's Democratic predecessor as speaker.

Ready For 'Whatever'

House Republicans made a campaign promise to cut $100 billion out of this year's federal spending. So the so-called continuing resolution that would keep the government running after March 4 was their opportunity to make those cuts. Boehner brought that measure to the House floor Tuesday and invited members to start amending it as they wished.

"We've never had an open process for a continuing resolution in our history, and so we're into some uncharted waters," he said. "I'm ready to expect whatever."

And that's exactly what he got. The next day, nearly half the Republicans joined Democrats to pass an amendment stripping funding for an alternative jet fighter engine that Boehner had strongly supported — it had brought more than a thousand jobs to his home state of Ohio.

One of the Republicans who voted to end that funding was New York's Peter King. "Some may think it's a very worthwhile project," he said. "I'm more inclined to rely on the secretary of defense and the Pentagon on an issue like this. If the Pentagon is telling you not to spend money on a military project, it's usually a good sign that we can cut back on it."

An Unhappy Ending?

Senate Democrats warned there isn't enough time left to work out a deal to avert a government shutdown. So they proposed a short extension of current funding to work out such a deal. Boehner said he would not agree even to a stopgap bill that did not cut current spending levels.

"When we say we're going to cut spending, read my lips, we're going to cut spending," Boehner said.

Democrats immediately interpreted that read-my-lips warning as an ultimatum from Boehner: Go along with our spending cuts or face a government shutdown.

"We're terribly disappointed that Speaker Boehner can't control the votes in his caucus to prevent a shutdown of government," said Harry Reid, the Senate majority leader. "And now he's resorting to threats to do just that, without any negotiations."

Negotiations would have to start soon — the Senate returns from a Presidents Day recess only a few days before government funding runs out. Senate Democrats may try to push through their own temporary spending measure and dare House Republicans not to pass it.

Stan Collender, an expert on congressional funding with Qorvis Communications, does not think this will have a happy ending.

"I think there's a better than 50-50 chance we're going to see a government shutdown of some magnitude, some length of time," he said.

The question then would be: Which party gets blamed?

Copyright 2011 National Public Radio. To see more, visit