Budget brinksmanship

As this was being written Thursday afternoon, the prospect of a partial government shutdown beginning today loomed larger than ever. In fact, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid said Thursday afternoon he expected it to occur, even though negotiations with Republican leaders and the White House were planned for later in the day and again Thursday evening.

Not surprisingly, both sides have been pointing fingers at the other party for being intransigent on a few key issues that are holding up the entire process.

Democrats say the Republicans are holding out for some non-budget policy items, called “riders,” to be included in the budget bill — things like prohibiting the EPA from regulating greenhouse gases and funding for abortion. If that’s the case, it is a mistake. Those are separate policy questions that ought to be dealt with in other legislation, not an emergency budget bill. The functioning of much of the federal government shouldn’t be held hostage to a few such issues.

Republicans, on the other hand, dispute the Democratic claim that the difference in budget numbers have essentially been resolved. House Speaker John Boehner said Thursday there is still a significant difference on the actual amount of budget cuts to be included in the measure.

That is equally ridiculous. As Oklahoma Sen. Tom Coburn noted in an op-ed piece in The Washington Post earlier this week, even when the budget gap between the two sides was $29 billion, that figure represented an amount that would fund the entire federal government for just seven days. The numbers are said to be considerably closer now. Why would members of either party choose to shut down large portions of the federal government while they haggle over a couple days of funding?

The answer, of course, is that both parties believe they have the stronger political hand in this fight and the opposing party has more to lose from a shutdown than they do.

It’s a dangerous game of budget brinkmanship that could backfire on both sides. They should recall that former House Speaker Newt Gingrich believed he had the upper hand in the mid-1990s budget battle with President Bill Clinton. But voters quickly lost patience with the temporary halt in key government functions, and they repaid Republicans by electing many Democrats over the next few election cycles.

We hope, by the time you read this, a budget compromise will be reached — at the very least, another continuing resolution that allows the government to keep operating temporarily.  If that’s no the case, and important government services are curtailed, it will mark another failure of our political leadership of the sort that has repeatedly caused an angry electorate to switch from one party to the other in recent elections.


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