WASHINGTON — The drums of war were replaced Thursday on Capitol Hill by a more familiar sound: House and Senate leaders bickering over federal spending.
Congressional leaders obliged this week to President Barack Obama’s request to delay votes to authorize US military strikes to punish Bashar al-Assad for an Aug. 21 chemical weapons attack that killed over 1,000 people. It became clear Thursday that Capitol Hill has moved beyond Syria came as those very leaders clashed over the shape of a temporary government-wide spending measure.
House and Senate leaders met behind closed doors Thursday morning to discuss fiscal issues, including how to move ahead with temporary continuing resolution that would avert a government shutdown on Oct. 1. They failed to agree on the shape and contents of such a bill.
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., called a House GOP-crafted version of a CR that would keep the Pentagon and other federal agencies running through Dec. 15 “a waste of time.”
The House CR stalled this week, largely over sharp differences about the inclusion of a section calling for President Obama’s signature healthcare law to be defunded.
"Those in touch with reality realize passing a clean CR is the thing to do," Reid told reporters.
Reprising partisan shots Democrats have used against the crop of anti-government, fiscally conservative Republican lawmakers who are affiliated with the tea party and began coming to Washington in 2010, Reid said a “small number” of GOP senators and “a majority” of House Republicans “live in an alternative universe.”
Democrats like Reid have sparred with tea party Republicans for three years. The latter want more deep federal spending cuts and oppose all tax hikes; the former wants a lesser amount of cuts and tax revenue increases from things like higher rates on wealthy citizens and closing corporate loopholes.
During his own press conference, Boehner resisted direct shots at congressional Democratic leaders or rank-and-file members.
But he did tell reporters he agrees with members of his caucus that Washington’s spending should be the focus of the CR debate, and other fiscal and budgetary debates slated for this fall and winter.
“We have got a spending problem,” Boehner said. “It must be addressed.”
'Pay a Price'
His Senate Democratic colleagues were less subtle about an hour later.
“We all know the speaker has a problem,” Reid said, later charging members of Boehner’s caucus with playing "juvenile political games" with the CR and other fiscal legislation. He charged most House Republicans and some in the Senate with “rooting for a government shutdown.”
The Senate’s No. 2 Democrat, Richard Durbin of Illinois, said Boehner must “look beyond his tea party faction.” If the speaker allows that part of his conference to influence his decision-making about the CR and other budgetary bills, Durbin predicted politically “he'll pay a price for it."
Democratic leaders pounded Boehner for obeying the wishes of his tea party members by opting against bringing bills to the House floor they say would pass with a mix of more-moderate Republicans and most Democrats.
One example they cited is a Senate-passed immigration bill that would require US officials to spend about $38 billion on technologies and security personnel along America’s southern border. Analysts say, if enacted, that part of the Senate bill would provide a big boost for American defense firms in the sequester era.
Senate Budget Committee Chairwoman Patty Murray, D-Wash., flatly said of most House and some Senate GOP members: “They want a shutdown.”
She urged Boehner to “break” with this part of his caucus.
Notably, around the time Senate Democratic leaders were addressing reporters, Rep. Tom Cole, R-Okla., a Boehner confidant, appeared on MSNBC.
"I don't favor shutting down the government,” he said, according to reports “It's a self-defeating act, and it will probably backfire politically."
House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., was less aggressive during her own appearance before the media, the third leadership press conference of the day.
If the House Republican’s CR came to the floor as currently crafted, there would be a “strong negative” amount of Democratic votes, she said.
'A Million' Ideas
To that end, Boehner said GOP leaders have been inundated with “a million” ideas from their members about how to move forward with the stopgap spending measure.
Pelosi urged ultra-fiscal conservatives to resist shutting down all federal agencies “because you’re anti-government.”
Rep. Jim Moran, D-Va., a senior House Appropriations Defense subcommittee member, told Defense News on Wednesday that the CR debate will offer clues about the odds of Congress actually completing a slew of major items on its remaining 2013 agenda. That includes a sequestration-addressing “grand bargain” fiscal deal.
Pelosi noted many House Republicans seemingly want an endless amount of spending cuts. But, she warned, more across-the-board cuts would amount to “getting into the bones” and hinder America’s overall economic strength.
Defense hawks on the Hill continue to warn further sequestration cuts to the Pentagon’s annual budget soon will leave the military unable to perform certain missions.
Director of National Intelligence James Clapper, speaking at a conference here Thursday, predicted another year under sequestration is likely. For the US intelligence community, the damage done by the across-the-board cuts won’t be known “until there is a failure.”
Clapper said intel agencies, to deal with sequestration, have done things like tinker with acquisition program schedules and budgets. “You can get away with that for one year,” he said, adding such tactics will prove disastrous if repeated annually.
Back on Capitol Hill, Pelosi offered a preview of the political fight coming if and when the White House try to kill two birds with one piece of legislation by raising the debt ceiling as part of a sequestration-addressing “grand bargain.”
“[Democrats] do need to make a case that we’ve cut over a $1 trillion already,” Pelosi said. “We don’t want people to think Republicans want to cut, and we just want to spend.”
Sen. Bob Corker, R-Tenn., on Wednesday told reporters the so-elusive “grand bargain” may again be too hard for Republicans and Democrats to reach. He is one of nearly 10 deal-minded GOP senators who analysts say are the key to forging a sequester-address accord, are fraying.
Corker told reporters the White House officials’ credibility with lawmakers is nearing a nadir.
“I could not be more disappointed,” he said. “On the fiscal issues … they’ve lost tremendous credibility there.”
Corker told reporters summer-long “grand bargain” talks between the White House and GOP senators have broken down.
“I don’t think there’s one of the eight senators who participated in those [grand bargain] meetings who feels like they were being credible on what they were doing,” Corker said.
But across the Capitol, Democratic House members say a big fiscal deal is unlikely due to partisan differences and GOP internal fissures.
“I don’t think the Syria debate affects things. We’re just at this point so deadlocked generally,” said Rep. Sander Levin, D-Mich. “It’s the polarization. It’s the deadlock. It’s the chaos within the Republican conference — the hardliners there.”
With Congress slated to spend the next three-and-a-half months largely working on fiscal and budgetary bills, Pelosi quipped: “It should be an interesting time.”