Around 11 a.m. on Thursday morning, Nancy Pelosi fielded a question from a journalist who wanted to know the same thing everyone else wanted to know: How, exactly, are the talks over a spending bill to avoid a government shutdown faring? The former Speaker of the House paused—back when Dems had a majority, after all, she would have been smack in the center of those negotiations. But now? “Well,” she sighs, “you would really have to speak to the Democratic leader in the Senate [Harry Reid], the president, and [Republican Speaker of the House John] Boehner—they’re the ones inside that room.”
That sums up the basic dynamic on the Hill at this point. Congress and the White House have until midnight Friday to agree on some sort of spending bill to keep the government funded. Otherwise, 800,000 federal employees get sent home, national parks close, financial oversight lapses, and basic services get disrupted. And, at this point, the deal over spending—assuming there is one—is getting thrashed out behind closed doors, between President Obama, Reid, and Boehner. Which means no one else in Congress has all that much to do. Except, that is, to try to get attention.
Pelosi, for one, held a press conference early in the day with Chris Van Hollen, the ranking Democrat on the House budget committee, to talk about the Republican budget for the next fiscal year, released on Tuesday. Technically, this is a separate issue from the hot topic of the hour—coming up with funding for the rest of the current fiscal year—but it’s clear that Democrats are happy to conflate the two. And why not? The House GOP budget, drafted by Wisconsin’s Paul Ryan, is already netting headlines for its sharp (and politically risky) cuts to Medicare and Medicaid. To a casual voter, it just might appear that Republicans are flirting with a government shutdown over cuts to health care for old people—precisely the issue that doomed Newt Gingrich during the 1996 shutdown. (Indeed, that’s why some Republicans wish that Ryan had held off on unveiling his budget.)
Pelosi and Van Hollen were all too happy to oblige. On Wednesday night, the House Budget Committee had marked up Ryan’s “Path to Prosperity” budget, and Democrats had put forward a flurry of amendments that had zero chance of passing but did make life uncomfortable for conservatives—such as a measure to prevent tax hikes on the middle class. James Lankford, a freshman Republican from Oklahoma, sounded weary about the Dems’ gambit when he talked with Slate: “I understand the role of the minority is to establish great talking points for press conferences.” He was right: On Thursday, Pelosi sounded shocked, shocked that Republicans had voted to pare back Medicare benefits: “Can you imagine that? Forcing seniors to pay more for their prescription drugs…”
Not to be outdone, Republicans spent all day firing back with their own ploys. Early in the day, Defense Secretary Robert Gates told soldiers in Baghdad that their paychecks would be delayed for at least a week in the event of a government shutdown. “You all know as well as I do that a lot of these troops live pretty much paycheck to paycheck,” Gates told The New York Times.
Republicans saw an opening, so they introduced a bill to keep the government open for another week—buying yet more time in the broader spending talks—while continuing to make deep cuts and tacking on riders on things like abortion funding for the District of Columbia. In other words, it’s a bill Democrats will never support. But here’s the tricky part: The bill would also fund the Pentagon for the rest of the year. That’s why it’s called—wait for it—the “Troop Funding Bill.”
In the afternoon, Republicans tripped over themselves on the House floor to lavish praise on the military and waggle a stern finger at Democrats. “If you vote against this bill, you are voting against the troops,” said Kentucky’s Hal Rogers. Alabama’s Mo Brooks broke into a strangled shout: “We’re trying to protect our troops in Afghanistan and Iraq so they don’t have to worry that their homes will be foreclosed on.” When informed that his speaking time had expired, Brooks barked, “No, I will not yield,” and spent 30 more seconds belaboring the point. Even though the bill easily passed the House, it’s clearly doomed—the White House quickly promised to veto it. But that didn’t stop Texas Republican Jeb Hensarling from piling on the mock sanctimony: “Even though I’ve been in Washington for while, I have not lost my ability to be outraged,” he said. “To have the president of the United States issue a veto threat on a bill to fund out troops … is an outrage!”
The House Democratic response effectively amounted to one word: Seriously? As Pelosi and Van Hollen were walking out of their morning press conference, a reporter asked if they were worried about being seen as anti-military by opposing the bill. Pelosi strode back up to the podium, unamused. “By the way,” she noted, “in our bill last year to fund the troops, they voted against it. So they have—and some might use harsher words here—an inconsistency.” She’s right. Neither party is innocent of trying to tack on their preferred policies to military-spending bills and then daring the other side to vote against solider pay. It’s an old trick in Congress—and one that’s so transparently cynical that it never works.
For their part, Senate Democratic leaders—the ones who are actually negotiating with Boehner and the rest of the House GOP—have remained largely unaffected by all the mayhem on the House floor. New York Democrat Chuck Schumer scoffed at the troop bill: “No one took it as a serious offer.” The Senate Dem line all day was that they’re close to an agreement with Boehner on the amount of federal spending to cut for the rest of the fiscal this year—somewhere in the vicinity of $33 billion to $39 billion. The real hold-up, they claimed, is Boehner’s insistence on riders to the bill—things like ending funding for Planned Parenthood or preventing the EPA from addressing global warming. “The Tea Party’s trying to push its extreme agenda with issues that have nothing, nothing, nothing to do with funding government,” said Harry Reid. Usually, his whispery voice can barely be heard over the scratching of pens on notepads around him, but this time, he was nearly on the verge of shouting.
The Dems’ argument is simple: We’re trying to be reasonable and compromise on budget cuts, but Boehner’s being held hostage by his right flank—the Tea Party folks who actively want a government shutdown. (And, in fairness, some Tea Party types really have said they’d welcome a shutdown.)
Boehner, meanwhile, seemed unruffled. At a mid-day press conference, he stepped out to a frenzy of clicking cameras and smiles. “All you reporters here, do you wonder with all these photographers how many pictures of me in a suit they need?” If he was tired from haggling all Wednesday night with Reid and Obama, it didn’t show. Nor did he seem outwardly uneasy at having to navigate between two unpalatable outcomes: If there is a government shutdown, Republicans will likely get blamed, as they did in 1996. On the other hand, if Boehner compromises too soon, he risks a revolt from within his own caucus.
Ultimately, whether the government shuts down or not will hinge on whether Boehner can strike a deal with the Democrats and sell it to his own members. Most of the reporters on the Hill understand that, which makes life frustrating for all the less-relevant members of Congress who are vying for attention with their stunt-of-the-hour. Around 3 p.m., Eric Cantor showed up in a TV studio to blast Democrats for voting against his troop-funding bill. One journalist asked if Republicans weren’t also endangering the troops by refusing to agree on a compromise with Democrats over funding for the rest of the year. Cantor, who normally speaks in a calm, slow Virginian drawl, seemed to lose his temper momentarily: “Look, the important point here is that we have men and women in uniform in harm’s way, right now! … I mean, come on! If we’re going to be adults here, let‘s provide for those who are fighting for our freedom.”
The one Republican who seems to be aware of the faintly absurd nature of all the shutdown theatrics was Boehner himself. One haggard reporter told the Speaker that, for three days in a row now, every day had started with lots of bluster from various politicians, and then ended with a nighttime meeting of Boehner, Reid, and Obama where slow progress over a spending bill got made. “I‘m glad you recounted that history for me,” Boehner chuckled. “Look, we do public policy here in Washington. But we do it in a political setting. This is what makes America a little different from every country in the world.” And, with that, he was off, back to yet another closed-door meeting, as the Friday deadline inched closer.
Bradford Plumer is an associate editor at The New Republic.