Even by the standards of today’s Capitol, where doing important business at or after the last possible moment is the default setting, an exceptionally long and disparate roster of battles and deadlines lies ahead this fall.
Far from conceding they’ll be strategically paralyzed by the welter of polarizing conflict, however, senior Republicans increasingly boast how the situation after Labor Day creates an ideal venue for a big accomplishment by Christmas.
This may prove to be only the naive optimism inherent in the onset of an especially long August recess. But the party that won control of Congress a year ago – with a promise to end the era of shutdown showmanship and fiscal cliff-walking – insists it has an escape hatch in the corner it’s been painting itself into all year.
The GOP’s bravado recalls legendary cases in which an underdog combatant, confronting seemingly imminent annihilation, asserts the situation is ideal for an against-all-odds comeback. Sometimes the prediction proves stunningly true in the clutch; other times, maddeningly, not at all.
“We got ’em right where we want ’em!” Denver Broncos lineman Keith Bishop hollered as the team took possession on its own 2-yard line, trailing 20-13 with 5-and-a-half minutes to go in the 1987 AFC Championship game. Sure enough, “The Drive” (as it’s still known NFL lore) ended with a tying touchdown in the closing seconds of regulation followed by an overtime field goal and a stunning Broncos upset of the Cleveland Browns.
“No, No. I’ve got ‘em right where I want ‘em – surrounded from the inside,” Sgt. 1st Class Jerry “Mad Dog” Shriver brayed over his radio in 1969, refusing to be rescued from the jungle floor of Cambodia by helicopter during a particularly bloody ambush of his platoon. The Green Beret’s fearlessness aside, he was never heard from again during the firefight and is still listed among the Vietnam war’s missing in action.
This summer’s audacity from the Republican leadership rests on the legislative paradox that an omnibus is often easier to pass than a rifle shot. Put a few other ways: An unwieldy morass of intractable policy standoffs can become a clear success when harnessed into one take-it-or-leave-it package.
An ambitious whole can prove much more palatable than the sum of its middling parts. A grand bargain will have an easier time gathering momentum than a bill embodying one tough choice. And more customers will order the No. 9 combo platter than will ever be enticed to buy the tamales or the crispy tacos a la carte.
Some legislative conspiracy theorists even suspect the leadership has been postponing so many of the inevitables somewhat on purpose – precisely so they all might by cobbled together into a massive bolus that a bipartisan majority of Congress would feel compelled to digest as their final act of the year (even though the far right, as well the far left, would refuse to swallow).
“My thing has always been: Why take three tough votes when you can just take one,” Rep. Tom Cole of Oklahoma, a deputy majority whip and a close ally of Speaker John A. Boehner, said recently in articulating the nascent GOP strategy. “I think the bigger deal you can get, the better.”
Sen. Roy Blunt of Missouri, vice chairman of the Republican Conference, is insisting Senate leadership will enter the fall with a plan for tackling each “must pass” item separately. That will sound like welcome news to the GOP’s combative conservative clique, which knows its hostage-taking options decrease whenever one discreet party priority is melded into another.
But those bomb throwers – on both sides of the Hill – will also remember that Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, Blunt, Boehner and most others at the GOP top table are elders in the deal-making wing of the party. So they can’t be all that surprised when a fatter-than-normal “omnibus” gets trotted out as the leadership’s “Option One” for transforming total gridlock into a burst of achievement.
This almost certainly won’t happen until after Thanksgiving, in the three weeks between that holiday and Dec. 18, when the first session of the 114th Congress is scheduled to end.
By then an initial round of drama, in September, can be counted on to have left lawmakers enervated and agitated. The year’s first fight over whether to keep the government operating without interruption – which Republicans are still looking to make all about federal funding for Planned Parenthood will have ended in yet another shutdown showdown. The veto power almost guarantees President Barack Obama will prevail then, and also a few days before on his nuclear deal with Iran, even though majorities in the House and Senate are prepared to vote against his wishes.
And Pope Francis threatens to make Republicans uneasy, given his views about economic justice and environmental stewardship, and Democrats uncomfortable, given his views about abortion and same-sex marriage, when his address to Congress focuses global attention on the Capitol.
All that excitement, however, could be easily eclipsed by the confluence of unavoidable standoffs at year’s end, headlined by what’s now getting dubbed the triple cliff.
Starting on Oct. 1, the programs and priorities of all federal agencies will remain in limbo until Obama and the GOP leadership settle on a plan for loosening the caps on military and domestic discretionary spending. (As a practical matter, such a deal will also be necessary to striking a final compromise on the next defense authorization bill, the Pentagon policy legislation that’s been enacted without fail for 54 straight years.)
On Oct. 29, the government’s authority to deliver public works payments to the states will expire – unless Congress either produces its 35th temporary patch of the past six years (the most recent, for just three months, was applied last week) or comes to agreement on how to finance several hundred billion dollars in highway, transit, railroad and auto safety programs into the next decade.
And by early November, if current estimates don’t change, the Treasury will be out of accounting maneuvers and the only way to avoid default will be for Congress to raise the federal borrowing limit above $18.11 trillion.
Climactic debates on the sequester, the highway bill and the debt ceiling can all be maneuvered pretty easily into December. Other high-profile programs facing renewal deadlines (and funding challenges) along the way include those for the Federal Aviation Administration, child nutrition and pipeline safety programs. Those could be kicked into the final weeks as well, as could the decisive deliberations about whether to revive the charter of the Export-Import Bank.
A behemoth measure to resolve most of these impasses – perhaps with some fundamental tax code changes to generate the hundreds of billions in necessary revenue – would be an amazing affirmation of Republicans’ promised governing competence. For now, it’s more than a mirage but nowhere close to reality. As the sage GOP Sen. John McCain of Arizona said last week, “Honestly, no one knows how this movie’s going to end.”