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“Cut It or Shut It”: Partisan Ping-Ponging on the Budget Threatens Shutdown

A government shutdown is looking like a real possibility as both sides dig in their heels in the budget debate for the year that's already half over. Funding for transportation, livability programs, and everything else remains a question mark as Senate Democrats try to moderate the House Republicans' budget cuts.

House Republicans are on the floor this morning trying to circumvent the Senate entirely with the “Government Shutdown Prevention Act of 2011,” which, Constitution be damned, would enact HR1 without Senate approval. Senate Democrats say the House-passed budget would kill 700,000 jobs, and they're not budging on their refusal to go along with it.

With only one week to go before the seventh budget extension expires, any advances are happening behind closed doors. Democrats have been saying they're close to a deal; House Speaker John Boehner denies it. He's stuck between a rock and a hard place, forced to cut deals with Democrats to pass a budget, but raising the ire of Tea Party conservatives if he does.

Tea Partiers gathered on the Hill yesterday (though not in especially large numbers -- several news media estimated their rally at about 100 people) with calls to “Cut it or Shut it,” referring to their demands that their leaders simply close the Capitol doors if Democrats do not agree to a minimum of $61 billion in cuts. Tea Party darling Rep. Mike Pence of Indiana sums up their motivations this way: “Sometimes, the most reasonable thing in the legislative process is to be unreasonable.”

The Tea Party goes further, threatening any Republican who compromises on that number with primary challenges, including House Speaker John Boehner, who has been unable to pass any significant legislation without a budget. This has put Boehner on the defense and he is, in turn, hammering the blame on Democrats: “Here's the bottom line. Democrats are rooting for a government shutdown. We're listening to the people who sent us here to cut spending.” This may be more than standard partisan bickering as senior House leaders recall that the last time they shut down the government over budget disagreements, it was not President Clinton who suffered the public’s blame.

Democratic leadership in the Senate and Vice President Joe Biden claim that they are working toward a compromise with Republicans, despite any individual statements to the contrary, but all this background dealing leaves much to be desired by those threatened by the cuts. Even at the Democrats' official threshold of $30 billion in cuts, thousands of programs and jobs are at stake. Everything but defense seems to be on the table – and without new public debate on which programs are eventually going to be scalpeled or thrown out, all federally funded groups find themselves stuck in a budgetary limbo.

Despite bipartisan support for transportation funding in the next Transportation bill, there is nothing but rumors as to how much transportation funding will stay or go in this year’s operational budget. Even at existing funding levels, major transportation infrastructure is "structurally deficient," and significant cuts would trickle down to the local level, putting existing transit at risk.

Meanwhile, 30 freshman Republican lawmakers are vowing to spend at least part of their salaried time on the steps of the Senate building every day until Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid passes a long-term continuing resolution.

These new policymakers are particularly affected by a lack of a real budget to guide any legislation they may have promised during their campaigns but their recent letter to Harry Reid offers no answers to the question of what their desired CR would look like.

It is not clear yet who the public will come to blame for a government shutdown, but with valuable time spent on presenting purely symbolic legislation or rallying on the steps of one's own office, we may get an answer in just one week.

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