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Monday, September 23, 2013 - 11:51pm
WASHINGTON, D.C. — "Government shutdown looms," blare the headlines and news anchors as Congress lurches toward another stalemate over how to spend tax dollars.
Before you wonder about that Social Security check or selling off your stock portfolio in advance of a possible market crash, consider a couple of political realities in the current debate over spending, Obamacare and the economy.
First, there is a week to go before the deadline for Congress to either authorize more government spending for a new fiscal year that begins October 1 or trigger a partial shutdown of government services.
In Washington, a week is like an NFL triple-header -- a seemingly endless stream of mindless commercial breaks with a few bursts of furious action and momentum swings. Anyone who predicts a shutdown with certainty a week ahead of time is messing with your head.
Second, all that political rhetoric and bluster is exactly that -- a bunch of words and posturing meant to bolster positions on either side of the debate. At this point, the congressional machinations in coming days are fairly clear, despite what one side or the other tries to portray as the right thing to do.
On NBC's "Meet the Press" on Sunday, four members of Congress -- two from each party -- were asked if there would be a shutdown. All answered no.
Third, this is all really about elections, like everything in Washington. In this case, legislators eyeing next year's congressional elections and the 2016 presidential vote are trying to appeal to their political bases more than actually working for a compromise solution.
So what do we know will happen?
The Democratic-led Senate kicks off the week of legislative brinksmanship by taking up a spending plan passed Friday by the Republican-led House that strips all funding for President Barack Obama's health care reforms.
A conservative GOP wing bullied Speaker John Boehner of Ohio to include the provision defunding Obamacare in the House spending measure, known in congressional jargon as a continuing resolution.
Those tea party conservatives seek to destroy or at least weaken the health care reforms of the Obamacare law passed in 2010 and held up as constitutional by the Supreme Court in 2012. They face fierce opposition from Obama and Democrats, who want to protect the president's signature legislative accomplishment so far.
Because Republicans control the House, they were able to pass the spending plan contingent on defunding Obamacare by a 230-189 margin, with all but two "yes" votes from Republicans and all but one "no" vote from Democrats.
In the Senate, however, Democrats and their two independent allies hold 54 of the 100 seats.
Now, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid of Nevada plans to remove the provision that defunds Obamacare from the House spending plan and send it back to Boehner.
While conservatives led by Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas threaten a filibuster to force a 60-vote majority to proceed, several prominent Republican senators oppose forcing a government shutdown by attaching the Obamacare issue to the spending plan.
Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky said Monday he will vote to overcome a filibuster attempt, guaranteeing such an effort by Cruz would fail as predicted.
Cruz, elected in 2012 with tea party support, has angered Republican veterans since joining the Senate by promoting political crusades for extreme conservative causes that ignore traditions of the chamber and, in some cases, political reality.
Last week, he called on the Senate to follow the House GOP lead in voting to defund Obamacare, even though prominent Republicans criticized him, with Sen. John McCain of Arizona labeling the plan impossible to achieve and therefore irrational.
Even one of Cruz's libertarian allies, Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky, concedes that the health care reforms are probably here to stay, though he backs a Senate filibuster to try to delay or undermine them as much as possible.
Meanwhile, other tea party favorites including Sarah Palin support the effort by Cruz to upend Senate normalcy by forcing Democrats and fellow Republicans to repeatedly make highly publicized votes for or against Obamacare.
In an op-ed published Monday on the website RealClearPolitics.com, Cruz called for GOP unity against Obamacare through a successful filibuster of any spending plan that includes funding for the health care reforms.
He laid out a procedural strategy in which Senate Republicans refuse to allow Reid to take up the House measure -- a step known as cloture that requires 60 votes -- unless the Democratic leader also permits a 60-vote threshold to pass any subsequent amendments such as the certain removal of the provision defunding Obamacare.
Otherwise, amendments pass by a simple 51-vote majority that the Democrats possess.
"Until Reid guarantees a 60-vote threshold on all amendments, a vote for cloture is a vote for Obamacare," Cruz wrote, calling for a public groundswell to motivate legislators from both parties to back his approach.
He showed the raw politics of his strategy by targeting Democratic senators who face re-election next year in conservative-leaning states.
"If you're a Mark Pryor, if you're a Mary Landrieu, running for re-election in Arkansas and Louisiana, and you start to get 5,000, 10,000, 20,000, 50,000 calls from your constituents, suddenly, it changes the calculus entirely," Cruz told "Fox News Sunday."
However, opposition to Cruz's approach by senior Senate Republicans including McConnell, McCain, Tom Coburn of Oklahoma, Bob Corker of Tennessee and others show it lacks the votes for a successful filibuster.
Critics warn that bombastic political rhetoric and promises that can't be fulfilled can undermine serious efforts to move forward.
"I think one of the things we are struggling with is establishing what's a realistic expectation for what we can accomplish when we control one out of three parts of the elected government," GOP Sen. Pat Toomey of Pennsylvania told MSNBC on Monday. "When you control only one out of the three, you don't get to dictate all the terms. But you can have some wins if you're smart and if you focus on where that opportunity lies."
Democratic Sen. Chuck Schumer of New York said the end result would be worked out amid all the political maneuvering.
"There are obviously going to be negotiations going on while this is happening," Schumer told MSNBC on Monday. "So everyone's going to know what's happening. Everyone's going to know the inevitable outcome."
Despite all the procedural hoopla, Reid and Democrats intend to cut out the provision that defunds Obamacare and return the spending plan to the House.
That would put the pressure on Boehner.
He could decide to set aside the measure, essentially declaring a stalemate between the House and Senate that would bring a government shutdown, which he has said he opposes.
Boehner also could bring the revised spending plan up for a vote and possibly allow for new amendments.
This is where things get tricky.
Because the Senate procedural battles are expected to last all week, the House will be under pressure to act quickly to avoid a government shutdown beginning October 1.
Boehner could allow a vote on the "clean" resolution sent back by the Senate, which would likely pass with support from all the House Democrats and a few dozen Republicans to reach the 218 majority threshold.
However, most House Republicans would vote "no" in that scenario, further weakening Boehner's already shaky leadership of his party's caucus after a similar result in a past budget battle.
Boehner also could allow GOP amendments to be added, such as a proposal to delay implementation of Obamacare for a year.
The intent would be put the pressure back on the Senate, and particularly Senate Democrats, to reject the revised House proposal and therefore risk getting blamed for a government shutdown.
That might not happen until after October 1 with a shutdown already begun, leaving Republicans vulnerable to the public perception they were responsible.
Recent polling shows growing public opposition to Obamacare, but much greater dislike for a government shutdown, particularly among independent voters considered crucial to presidential hopefuls. In addition, more respondents indicated they would blame Republicans for a shutdown.
The deadline to increase the federal debt ceiling -- how much money the government can borrow to pay its bills -- is coming up in mid-October, presenting another opportunity for Cruz and other Republicans to go after Obamacare.
House Republican leader Eric Cantor of Virginia already has said the House will consider a debt ceiling measure this week with a wish list of GOP priorities attached, including delaying Obamacare for a year and launching construction of the Keystone oil pipeline from Canada.
CNN's Ted Barrett contributed to this report.
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