Before the midterms, conservative leaders were warning that they’d force a showdown over federal spending much earlier than expected: in the lame duck session, before the newly elected Republicans come to Washington.
They weren’t joking. Republican and Democratic leaders are now engaged in a brinksmanship that could result in a temporary shutdown of the federal government. After the election, Republicans voted among themselves to eschew all earmarks for two years, and now they have to make good on their pledge. Yesterday, Democrats’ chief appropriator, Sen. Daniel Inouye (D-HI) unveiled what’s known as an omnibus spending bill — a bundled up package of appropriations legislation, earmarks, and other measures — which would keep the government running for a year.
In response, most Republicans — even those whose multimillion dollar earmark requests are included in the legislation — are saying, “Hell no you can’t!”
That puts them all in an awkward position. At a press conference this morning, Sens. John Cornyn (R-TX) and John Thune (R-SD) were at pains to explain away why they requested earmarks that appear in the bill they’re now railing against. But it also sets the two parties up for a standoff — and one side must blink by this weekend, or the lights will start going out in the federal government.
Democrats will try to use the impending deadline to pass the omnibus. If it fails, they can take up a piece of legislation passed by the House known as a “continuing resolution,” which will keep the government funded at current levels through next year.
Republican leaders reject both plans. They’re demanding that Congress pass a short-term funding measure, which would expire early next year and give the incoming Republicans the power to cut spending significantly.
“The government runs out of money this Saturday,” Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell warned this morning on the Senate floor. “Congress should pass a short-term CR immediately.”
And they’re taking dramatic steps to stop Democrats (and their omnibus) in their tracks.
Sen. Jim DeMint (R-SC), who led the GOP’s anti-earmark crusade, will use the rules of Senate procedure to force the 2000-page omnibus to be read aloud on the Senate floor — a tactic which could eat up enough time to force the Democrats’ hand.
Some Republican appropriators and others are expected to support the legislation. But vulnerable, and anti-earmark, Democrats are expected to defect, and it’s unclear whether the legislation — which was once expected to pass handily — can muster the 60 votes it will need to overcome a filibuster.
“There are 23 Democrats who are up in 2012, who I think are — and I know Senator McCaskill is one of them — whose said she’s going to vote against it,” Cornyn told me. “Part of the reason we’re doing this is to raise the attention of the American people and let them know what’s happening so they can express their outrage.”
Brian Beutler is TPM's senior congressional reporter. Since 2009, he's led coverage of health care reform, Wall Street reform, taxes, the GOP budget, the government shutdown fight, and the debt limit fight. He can be reached at email@example.com.