WASHINGTON-With the federal government days away from running out of money and shutting down, the so-called war over federal spending in late February became mostly a war of words.
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid on Feb. 22, George Washington's birthday, told House Speaker John Boehner to "stop drawing lines in the sand" over government funding. Republican Boehner responded by telling Democrat Reid to "stop creating more uncertainty by spreading fears."
What lent gravity to the verbal sparring was a fast-approaching budget deadline: March 4. If a bill to fund the government through the rest of the fiscal year isn't passed by that date, then parts of the federal government deemed nonessential will shut down. But even as the deadline loomed, the last full week in February didn't contain much face-to-face negotiating on Capitol Hill. The reason: Lawmakers were back home in the midst of a week-long recess.
Washington's birthday began with Reid offering an "olive branch" in the form of yet another temporary, stopgap-funding measure to allow the government to remain open at current spending levels. But Reid's offer of a $41 billion reduction in federal spending was a non-starter to Boehner after the Republican-led House had just passed $61.5 billion in federal cuts.
Admitting that the two sides have not negotiated "at all," Reid bemoaned the fact that too much time has been spent talking to the media. "We can't do this thorough the press," Reid, in Nevada, said while on a conference call with reporters. "We want to sit down and talk . . . and act like adults."
But the call for maturity came with a continued goading of Republicans to shut down the government. Democrats have become amateur historians during this debate, recalling the last time the government shut down in 1994. Then, like now, the Republicans had just taken control of the House. But then-Speaker Newt Gingrich's gambit didn't go so well for the GOP. The shutdown bolstered President Bill Clinton at a time when his reelection prospects for 1996 looked bleak.
Democrats are hoping that history repeats itself. They are betting that voters will blame a new shutdown on the Republicans and help President Barack Obama and company regain political momentum after last November's shellacking.
But many conservatives believe that this is a different time-that a bulk of Americans are not only willing to see a smaller federal government, they are insisting on it.
That is why freshman Rep. Joe Walsh, R-Ill., can proclaim during a recent district meeting with constituents at a coffeehouse: "If my Republican leadership asks me to vote for a budget, even a two-week budget, that doesn't have spending cuts, I will say no and I will shut down government."
Freshman lawmakers like Walsh, emboldened by the grassroots upheaval, are a major reason why the House approved the $61.5 billion in budget cuts. House Republican leaders initially offered packages ranging from $32 billion to $40 billion in spending reductions. But freshman lawmakers balked and the leadership blinked: "It is not far enough, fast enough," exclaimed freshman Rep. Bill Huizenga, R-Mich., who noted that many new members campaigned using the GOP pledge to cut $100 billion from federal spending. "If we start mucking it up with too many D.C. numbers, people are going to say, 'Hey, wait a minute.' We are going to be judged."
The $61.5 billion is the largest reduction in non-defense discretionary spending in history, but fiscal conservatives point out that it follows a historic increase in spending over the last few years. For that reason, even the $61.5 billion figure wasn't enough for some members of the Republican caucus: 147 Republicans supported an unsuccessful bid to add $22 billion more in cuts.
The internal Republican squabble about how deep to make the federal cuts highlighted a week-long congressional debate over the nation's spending habits that preceded the Reid-Boehner verbal battle. The arguments ran from the serious (federal funding for abortion) to the absurd (a failed vote to cut NASCAR sponsorships paid for by the military.)
Offering probably the best C-SPAN viewing since last year's healthcare fracas, the floor posturing didn't end until nearly dawn on Feb. 19. As Friday evening turned into Saturday morning, some lawmakers slept in the Speaker's Lobby just off of the House chamber. The only bipartisan cheers occurred when the Republican leadership announced, at around 2 a.m., that the final vote would occur in about an hour.
But those cheers would have been groans if lawmakers had known that more than two more hours of debate still waited. When the gavel finally fell to end the session, at approximately 4:30 a.m., not a single Democrat had voted for the spending reductions.
Now the Senate takes up the efforts to fund the government for the rest of the fiscal year. The House bill is considered too severe for many Senate Democrats. "Republicans seem to want to take a meat ax," said Reid. "We believe we need to use a scalpel."
While lawmakers continued their verbal melee on how to fund the government for this year, President Barack Obama released his budget for fiscal year 2012. If it were a movie, the Obama budget may have received an even lower score on Rotten Tomatoes than current cinematic bottom-dweller The Roommate (which 6 percent of critics like, according to the website).
Rep. Paul Ryan, R-Wis., the House Budget Committee chairman, declared in his review that Obama's budget "accelerates our country down the path to bankruptcy." But the chorus of negativity was not limited to one side of the political spectrum: The liberal editorial board of The Washington Post called Obama "punter-in-chief" for kicking the "hard choices further down the road."
The White House budget would spend a record $3.73 trillion and projects that this year's deficit will hit a record $1.6 trillion. Under this budget, the national debt would nearly doubly over the next decade. By 2014, the net interest payment on the nation's debt would exceed the amount spent on all discretionary programs combined minus defense spending.
But what caused the biggest fist-pounding is how little attention the budget devotes to entitlement spending. "Domestic discretionary spending is to entitlements what a pellet gun is to a cannon," wrote Peter Wehner, a senior fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center and a former Bush adviser.
In fact, discussion of entitlement reform has been absent in most of February's belt-tightening debates.
Rep. Jeff Flake, R-Ariz., cited this as a reason why he was one of only three Republicans who voted against the House bill to continue funding the government. He said the cuts represented just 1/15th of the nation's deficit: "If we are really going to get on the right track here, we've got to understand that we have to make unprecedented cuts, and realize that what we are doing here is just a rounding error compared to what we are going to have to do with entitlement spending."
In the face of record annual deficits and a record overall national debt, Flake and others argue that even record cuts are not enough.
The debate is not expected to end any time soon: The shutdown showdown is merely Round 1. Next up: the debates over the 2012 budget and over President Obama's request to increase the national debt limit above its current $14.3 trillion level.
With Democrats versus Republicans, the House versus the Senate, and Republican leaders against Tea Party freshmen, expect words to continue to be the weapon of choice during this war over spending.
President Obama's 2012 budget
Spending will be a record $3.73 trillion-which constitutes 25.3 percent of GDP, the highest since World War II. The Obama administration's 2012 budget proposal projects this year's deficit to reach $1.645 trillion-the largest on record. This is now a record fourth straight trillion-dollar-plus deficit.
Cuts like a knife
The House's $61 billion in cuts for the current budget year (fiscal year 2011, ending Sept. 30) come from hundreds of federal programs. Highlighted cuts compared to the agency levels enacted by Congress for fiscal year 2010:
Securities and Exchange Commission: $25 million
Transportation Security Administration: $55.6 million
FBI Construction: $133 million
Food and Drug Administration: $241 million
NASA: $303 million
Customs and Border Protection: $350 million
The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration: $454.3 million
State and Local Law Enforcement Assistance: $581.3 million
Internal Revenue Service: $603 million
Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy: $786.3 million
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention: $1,397.4 million
FEMA: $1,492.6 million
U.S. General Services Administration : $1,721.8 million
Department of Education-Program Adjustments: $4,899.1 million
Department of Health and Human Services: $8,520.5 million