government shutdown

Historically Significant Leaders Guide Senate, House

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell have already cemented their congressional legacies. Now those legacies may be tested as they face another deadline to forge a border security compromise that can pass Congress and President Trump will accept, avoiding another potential government shutdown.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell have already cemented their congressional legacies. Now those legacies may be tested as they face another deadline to forge a border security compromise that can pass Congress and President Trump will accept, avoiding another potential government shutdown.

We may be witnessing historically significant congressional leaders in Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi. What they do next in response to continuing demands by President Trump to fund his controversial border wall may affect their legacies.

History-making by McConnell, the Republican, and Pelosi, the Democrat, is as different as night-and-day and as the Senate and the House. Pelosi is known for muscling major legislation on health care and consumer protection through Congress. McConnell’s legacy is laying the groundwork for a GOP agenda outside Congress in the scores of conservative judges he has ushered through the Senate. 

The New York Times Magazine featured McConnell over the weekend, noting he recognized the parliamentary obstacles in the Senate to passing any kind of major legislation, so he turned his focus on federal judgeships. He has steered through two new Supreme Court justices and 83 lower-court judges. And he famously blocked the confirmation of Supreme Court nominee Merrick Garland during President Obama’s last year in office.

“When Brett Kavanaugh was confirmed to the Supreme Court on October 6, after McConnell played a key role in ushering him through a month of arguments over and investigations into allegations of sexual assault, the scope of the majority leader’s influence on American governance snapped into focus.”

A similar epiphany occurred when Pelosi stared down Trump over his demand for funding for his border wall that led to a record-shattering five-week partial federal government shutdown. Pelosi was hailed by supporters and critics alike as the most powerful female elected official in America.

McConnell is following in the tracks of legendary Senate majority leaders such as Lyndon Johnson, who passed the first modern-day civil rights bills in 1957 and 1960 and Mike Mansfield, the longest-serving majority leader who steered through the more famous Voting Rights and Civil Rights legislation, as well creation of Medicare and Medicaid as part of Johnson’s Great Society.

While McConnell admires Mansfield, NYT magazine says, “McConnell is the first majority leader whose career has been built on the assumption that the Senate could produce the great legislative works of his predecessors is a thing of the past.” 

He is partially responsible for his own view. As minority leader and then majority leader during the Obama presidency, McConnell was a fortress of obstruction. Or as NYT Magazine described it, “He fashioned himself as the essential impediment to Obama’s vision of a sequel to the Great Society, using tactics that were once the province of Senate factions as a strategic blueprint for the entire Republican caucus.” 

McConnell admits to being an obstructionist. “Far be it from me to complain about obstruction when I’ve been involved in it,” he said. McConnell justifies his obstruction by adding, “There was a point to it.”

His obstruction stretched beyond Obama-backed legislation to include blocking a pre-2016 election warning about Russian interference. Armed with US intelligence about Russian meddling, Obama said he would only release the information if all four of the Senate and House caucus leaders agreed to avoid any appearance of politicizing the intelligence data. House Speaker Paul Ryan, Pelosi and Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer agreed. McConnell said no. 

McConnell may seem an unlikely obstructionist-in-chief. Not especially photogenic or charismatic, McConnell has used “this blankness to his advantage, made it a carrier for designs greater than himself.” NYT Magazine reports McConnell was willing to take positions viewed as politically distasteful such as opposing campaign finance reform with a “shrugging willingness to play a villain when a villain was required.”

Pelosi is a more electric figure. She is the first woman elected House Speaker, the first woman to lead a party in Congress and the first Speaker to lose, then win back the position since Sam Rayburn in 1955. Her leadership in the 2018 midterm election resulted in a record-setting number of women winning election to Congress. All that cements her legacy as a historical congressional figure.

She is best known – and most often demonized – by her leadership in passing the Affordable Care Act without a single Republican vote. A Republican congressional observed her effort “as masterful a piece of legislating as I have ever seen.”

Her relentless drive to push a progressive agenda, which included a climate change bill, gets part of the blame for the GOP congressional takeover in the 2010 midterm election. 

Pelosi became Speaker in 2007 toward the end of President George W. Bush’s second term and growing public frustration with the Iraq war, which she opposed, and deepening economic recession. In the face of potential economic collapse, Pelosi mustered the needed votes for a Wall Street bailout plan in the House. 

Her steadfast opposition has posed an insurmountable obstacle, at least so far, to Trump’s border wall. Her hardball tactic of denying Trump a congressional stage during the prolonged government shutdown underscored her image as a “force of nature.” Or as Pelosi herself observed about Trump that he may unfamiliar dealing with “women in power.” [After the shutdown ended, Pelosi extended an invitation to Trump to give his State of the Union speech on February 5.]

Congress faces a three-week deadline to resolve the border security issue. Trump has resumed his demand for $5.7 for the border wall, threatening to block any legislation without it and declaring a national emergency. 

There is a bipartisan consensus in the congressional shadows that would agree to $5.7 billion or more for border technology, additional border agents, modernized ports of entry and increased Coast Guard drug interdictions. A sliver of money might even be included for physical barriers where appropriate, but not the full-fledged border wall Trump wants. 

That presages another showdown and potential shutdown, even though the one that just ended cost the nation an estimated $11 billion in lost economic activity and $3 billion in federal revenue, not to mention stress and loss of morale for federal workers who went without pay for a month. 

The odds in the showdown may be in favor of Pelosi whose approval rate has soared while Trump’s have sagged.

This time around, the fate of border security and heading off another punishing government shutdown may revolve around the historically significant figures who lead the Senate and the House. It could boil down to a battle between a skilled obstructionist and an equally skilled legislative tactician with their legacies on the line. Or, it could blossom improbably into a bicameral, bipartisan push-back for a troubled President. That certainly would be history-making for both.


Congress Faces Yet Another Spending Deadline

 In what might be an omen for this week on Capitol Hill as Congress faces yet another spending deadline, the train carrying Republicans to their West Virginia retreat site. Just as ominous, Democrats are scheduled to begin their 3-day retreat the day before this week’s deadline.

 In what might be an omen for this week on Capitol Hill as Congress faces yet another spending deadline, the train carrying Republicans to their West Virginia retreat site. Just as ominous, Democrats are scheduled to begin their 3-day retreat the day before this week’s deadline.

In the aftermath of President Trump’s first State of the Union Address and the hullabaloo over release of the GOP surveillance memo, the looming government spending deadline this Thursday almost slipped out of sight. Almost.

As bitter and battle-weary Members of Congress trudge back to Capitol Hill this week, the deadline will be anything but invisible. What’s hard to see is any compromise that can win enough support from Senate Democrats, House conservatives and the Trump White House. Before they resolve differences on spending, they need to agree on immigration.

Senate Democrats want protection for so-called Dreamers, but House conservatives object to granting them an eventual path to citizenship. Trump offered up long-term protection for Dreamers, but at the price of a $25 billion “trust fund” for his promised border wall, which Senate Democrats reject.

Republican Congressman Will Hurd, a former undercover CIA officer whose Texas congressional district includes the longest stretch of the US-Mexican border, has proposed a simple compromise, along with Democratic Congressman Pete Aguilar of California. Their proposal would protect Dreamers and provide for enhanced border security, but not necessarily a huge investment in a physical wall. It’s uncertain whether Trump or a majority of House Republicans would support their proposal.

immigration may be the roadblock to a compromise, but disagreements over spending, especially for defense and health care programs, are like a washed-out bridge. The inability to agree on spending in the current federal fiscal year has led to four continuing resolutions – stopgap funding measures that generally allow federal agencies to keep plugging along with the same budget as the previous year.

The disagreement isn’t just over on how to spend federal dollars, but how many federal dollars to spend. After Republicans pushed through a $1.5 trillion tax cut, which may add as much as $1 trillion to the federal deficit this year, House conservatives are wary of spending even more. Democrats are pressing for restoration of funding for community health centers and more generous disaster relief for states affected by hurricanes, floods and wildfires.

Stop-and-go spending authorization has prevented agencies from the Pentagon to the Centers for Disease Control to pursue new objectives and resulted in an added layer of government inefficiency. Defense Secretary James Mattis has warned that the inability of Congress to pass a budget has weakened US security.

While there is broad bipartisan agreement on the need for infrastructure investment, there is widespread disagreement on how much should come from direct federal spending – and how whatever level of funding is approved will be paid for. 

Since the three-day partial government shutdown that ended with another continuing resolution and the February 8 deadline, there isn’t much public evidence of productive negotiations. Most of last week was consumed by Trump’s speech and bitter partisan back-and-forth about the memo released by the House Intelligence Committee’s GOP majority. That’s not a great starting block for negotiations to avoid another government shutdown the end of this week.

Rep. Adam Schiff, the lead Democrat on the committee, said over the weekend he will press for a vote as soon as today on the Democratic rejoinder to Chairman Kevin Nunes’ memo. Nunes has hinted he may be working on additional memos that he says may show anti-Trump bias in the State Department.

Despite Trump’s plea for bipartisanship in his State of the Union speech, his administration continues to provide fodder to deepen partisan divides. He has virtually gutted the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, refused to impose congressionally approved sanctions on Russian oligarchs and watched as his appointee to lead the Centers for Disease Control resigned after disclosures that she bought and sold tobacco stocks.

Still hanging around, but as far in the shadows as before, is the need to increase the national debt ceiling. Treasury officials say congressional action is needed in February. GOP congressional leaders almost certainly need Democratic votes in both the House and Senate to approve a debt limit increase, but that may prove politically complicated as well with so many other higher profile disagreements.

It will be an interesting week on Capitol Hill, which Vox chided will be punctuated by Republican and Democratic caucus retreats on the weekends before and after the latest spending drop-dead date. Perhaps as an omen, the train carrying Republicans to their West Virginia retreat site ran into a garbage truck. Just as ominous, Democrats are set to begin their 3-day retreat in Maryland the day before the spending deadline. Don’t bet against yet another temporary continuing spending resolution, as well as more political bickering. On the bright side, the Winter Olympics start this week.


Nuclear Fallout and a Looming Shutdown Threat

House Speaker John Boehner returned to DC from summer recess to discover yet another rank-and-file revolt that could have repercussions on later voters and his political survival as Speaker.

House Speaker John Boehner returned to DC from summer recess to discover yet another rank-and-file revolt that could have repercussions on later voters and his political survival as Speaker.

The Iran nuclear deal negotiated by the Obama administration looks like a done deal, which makes it all the more puzzling why House Republicans are arguing over how to vote to oppose it. reports that House GOP leaders returned from summer recess to discover a rank-and-file revolt. Every House Republican opposes the Iran nuclear deal, but some resist voting on a simple resolution of disapproval. That has forced the House leadership to come up with a plan, which will be shared with caucus members today, to quiet the discontent.

The agitation in the House has led political observers to wonder whether Speaker John Boehner can survive or whether he can steer some course on a debt ceiling vote later this fall to avoid a federal government shutdown.

Congress left town in August anticipating a high-octane advertising and lobbying campaign could sway Senate Democrats from supporting the Iran nuclear deal. However, a coordinated campaign led by the White House kept up pressure to support the deal, calling it the only deal Congress would see.

By the time Congress returned, more than 40 senators, including all four senators from Oregon and Washington, had come up publicly in support of the deal, ensuring that a presidential veto of a resolution of disapproval could not be overridden.

The specter of a clear path for the deal prompted House Republicans to call for other ways to express opposition. One idea was a resolution declaring Obama administration officials failed to send all parts of the deal, including side deals, to Congress. Another idea is to frame the House vote as a resolution of approval, which would force Obama allies to vote for the deal, not just against a resolution disapproving it.

Senate Republicans shrugged their shoulders at House proposals and appear on track to put forward a resolution of disapproval, which all Senate Republicans and a few Democrats are expected to support. If there is nothing comparable in the House, then no legislation may ever reach Obama's desk for him to veto. Congress only has until September 17 to act.

With the Iran deal more or less sewed up, the maneuvering in the House now seems more like a dress rehearsal for the looming debt ceiling vote last this fall. Boehner and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell have dismissed any effort to force a government shutdown, but conservative activists may not give up. Boehner has little choice but to find ways to placate his restive conservative wing.

"Foreign Affairs" published an online article examining what might happen after the 15-year period covered by the Iran nuclear deal comes to an end. At a minimum, there will be new leadership in Iran, plus the effects of rapidly changing demographics that could make the post-pact period a very different ballgame.

A Lame Duck Congressional Cromnibus

A lame duck Congress is reduced to passing a tax bill that expires almost as soon as it passes and a spending bill that seeks to single out the Department of Homeland Security.

A lame duck Congress is reduced to passing a tax bill that expires almost as soon as it passes and a spending bill that seeks to single out the Department of Homeland Security.

The lame duck Congress appears on the verge of passing a tax bill that would expire January 1, 2015 and considering something called a "cromnibus," a plan to keep the federal government's doors open while placating conservative Republicans.

The tax bill, which would extend 50 expiring tax benefits, was once a promising measure. But the omission of an earned income tax credit, the threat of a presidential veto and the looming GOP congressional majority in the next Congress left negotiators little wiggle room. They chose the lowest common denominator – extending the tax provisions through 2014, but ending January 1, 2015.

That means tax credits, such as the one that benefit electric motorcycle manufacturers like Brammo in Ashland, Oregon, won't be unplugged, at least for now.

The cromnibus has a similar political lineage.

Just last month, House and Senate Appropriations staff were well on their way to negotiating framework for a 2015 omnibus spending bill. Thanks to a bipartisan deal crafted last December by Senator Patty Murray (D-WA) and Representative Paul Ryan (R-WI), domestic and national security spending levels were set for fiscal years 2014 and 2015. The deal gave Congress a funding road map for fiscal 2015 and allowed House and Senate Appropriations panels to write nearly all of their fiscal 2015 bills with comparable top-line spending levels, leaving less to negotiate.

Unfortunately, optimism for an omnibus measure faded after President Obama issued an executive order on immigration to protect five million undocumented immigrants from deportation. Many Republicans insist the executive actions are an abuse of constitutional power and are turning to the appropriations process to block Obama's efforts. 

To appease these members of the GOP, House Appropriation Chair Harold Rogers (R-KY) is crafting a "cromnibus" package. This measure would fund all of government operations and spending through the end of fiscal 2015, except for Homeland Security. A separate three-month continuing resolution would be provided for the agency, buying time for the GOP to determine how to block the executive orders in the new Congress.

Still, a group of vocal conservatives is pushing House GOP leaders to attach a policy rider to the cromnibus that explicitly prevents funding for executive actions on immigration. Such a move would be dead on arrival in the Senate. For now, the clock is ticking as appropriators race to finalize a plan that will pass both chambers by December 11 and prevent a government shutdown. 

Ultimately, the outcome of the lame duck session will give the best indication of how well the new Republican majority will work with President Obama. If Republicans prefer to play hardball with a possible government shutdown on December 11, the stage will be set for a tumultuous two years of governing.

Members of Congress returned to DC with a hefty to-do list that includes the National Defense Authorization Act, which has a strong history of bipartisan support and is on track to pass again this year.

Inaction Response to Navy Yard Shooting

The latest mass shooting, this time perilously close to the U.S. Capitol, has produced the same thud of silence in Congress.

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid told reporters he still lacks the votes to pass any significant gun control legislation. And if the Democratically controlled Senate is stymied, you can imagine the challenge in the GOP-controlled House.

Perhaps it is one of those telling yet cruel coincidences that two Colorado state senators who voted for legislation requiring universal background checks were just recalled in special elections. And this is in a state that has experienced two recent mass shootings. The alleged Navy Yard shooter had been arrested in Seattle for firing three pistol shots into the tires of a man who angered him. The Navy contractor in DC said he never would have hired the shooter if he had known. But the message in the Colorado election left a deeper impression. 

The shooting spree Monday at the Navy Yard, which is at the edge of Capitol Hill in Washington, DC, sent shudders down a lot of backs across America, including those of men and women in the military. Despite their security, military bases have become ready-made targets for shooters with nobody in particular to kill, but with the ability to walk into a gun shop and legally buy a shotgun.

There was huge irony in the White House Rose Garden as President Obama, trying to put the Syrian chemical weapons episode in the rearview mirror, held a press conference to refocus national attention — and the attention of House GOP leaders — on the still-flagging U.S. economy. While he spoke, Congress and other government offices were in lock-down while authorities searched for potential additional shooting suspects in the neighborhood.

Political Merry-Go-Round Keeps Spinning

What's a circus without a merry-go-round? Washington is becoming more like a three-ring circus with conflicting political agendas.

Washington, DC is a fascinating place. Just consider the last 24 hours.

President Obama, America's first black chief executive, mounts a podium in front of the Lincoln Memorial to commemorate Martin Luther King's historic "I Have a Dream" speech. Obama praises King for words that "belong to the ages," chides those who dismiss racial gains since the 1963 speech and points out unfinished work to curb growing income inequality in America.

At a fundraiser in Idaho, House Speaker John Boehner tees up a battle with Obama over raising the federal debt ceiling this fall. Despite a warning from the Treasury Secretary Jack Lew that the nation will run out of cash in mid-October, Boehner promises a "whale of a battle," including a possible shutdown of the federal government.

Meanwhile, Secretary of State John Kerry warns that those responsible for the toxic gas attack in Syria will be held accountable and Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel says U.S. warships are ready to obey a presidential order to launch cruise missiles at military targets in the war-torn country. Senator John McCain, who has advocated U.S. military intervention for months, calls leaks about pending missile strikes "crazy."