Back to business as usual

With less than 24 hours left until a likely default, the House and Senate reached agreement late Wednesday on a deal that reopens the federal government and avoids a breach of the debt ceiling.

By a margin of  81-19 in the Senate and 285-144 in the House, Congress approved H.R. 2775 to fund the government through Jan. 15 and covers the debt limit until Feb. 7

Nebraska’s entire delegation, Sens. Mike Johanns and Deb Fischer, and Reps. Jeff Fortenberry, Lee Terry and Adrian Smith, supported the measure.

Smith, Terry and Fortenberry were among the 87 House Republicans who joined 198 Democrats in passing the budget and debt deal. In the Senate, the measure gained the support of all Democrats and all but 18 Republicans.

Voting against it were such vocal opponents as Sen. Tom Coburn of Oklahoma, Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas,  Rand Paul of Kentucky, and Mike Lee of Utah. There was concern earlier in the day that Cruz would use a procedural move to delay the vote until at least Thursday.

The Senate voted about 9 p.m. CDT and the House voted just after 11:15 p.m. CDT.

In the end, Republicans had little to show for the 16-day shutdown of the federal government and stretching the debt ceiling to the brink. They failed to defund or delay the Affordable Care Act, although they did win a minor concession involving income verification for those receiving federal subsidies to buy health insurance.

Government in bits and pieces

As constituents begin bringing the heat to Washington lawmakers about the government shutdown, the Republican majority in the House tried Tuesday to re-open pieces of the government they closed hours earlier.

First, House leaders sought to reopen such  Washington tourist attractions as the National Zoo, Smithsonian Institution and the memorials to Presidents Lincoln and Washington, veterans of the Vietnam and World War II , Holocaust victims and other sites.

Second, they tried to reopen the flow of federal funding to the District of Columbia. DC residents pay taxes like all Americans but, because the federal government does not pay taxes on any of the DC real estate it occupies, it sends money to the district to pay its share. During the 1995-’96 shutdowns, garbage collection in DC was one of the first casualties, and the capital soon became a stinky mess.

Finally, the House attempted to restore funding so veterans’ benefit would continue.

All three measures failed because, rather than following normal procedure that allows them to pass bills by a simple majority, House leaders chose to bring them to the floor using a procedure that requires the approval of two-thirds of the members. Republicans hold a majority, but they need the votes of Democrats to reach that higher threshold, and the Democrats have so-far objected to funding government in bits and pieces.

Less than a full day into the shutdown, Washington had already become an ugly place. A planeload of World War II veterans, the  85- and 90-year-old remnants of America’s Greatest Generation was turned away from the World War II Memorial because all National Park Service sites have been closed. They were fortunately “rescued” by a group from Capitol Hill that moved some of the barricades so they could enter.

The barriers were replaced first-thing Wednesday morning, but the closed memorial and the more planeloads of elderly veterans arriving later on “honor flights” from the states was too fine of a photo-op for Republicans to miss. A group of far-right members of Congress, including Rep. Michele Bachman, joined the Republican National Chairman there as he unveiled a check to pay for five security guards to protect the 7.4-acre memorial during the shutdown.

In another largely symbolic move Tuesday, House Republicans selected what are called “conferees” to negotiate with the Senate to resolve their differences on H.J. Res. 59 and reopen the government. Traditionally, conflicts in budget bills are hashed out in meetings between members of the House and Senate. Those conferences are typically held early in the year, however, so Congress can pass a complete budget during the Spring.

But House Republicans had already poisoned that well by declining 18 earlier invitations from the Senate to meet. Besides, there is no budget pending to keep the government open for a full year. The current resolution would only keep the government open through Nov. 15 — a mere six weeks. The only conflict preventing continuing government operation is the Affordable Care Act. Both sides are taking an all-or-nothing stance on Obamacare.

What that means for Nebraskans is that they should step away from the mail box.  Mail will continue to be delivered, but no one in Washington is working to process your passport application, tax return,  security clearance or Small Business Administration loan. If you do business with the federal government, there will be no new contracts to bid on and no checks processed to pay for the work you’ve already done.  You can’t even start planning your family vacation to Yellowstone next year because most federal websites have closed, too.

Why all the problems? Because killing Obamacare is more important to some Republicans than keeping the government going.  Republicans have spent the past three decades gerrymandering congressional districts to the point where they don’t have to worry about re-election. In most districts, there is no way a Republican congressman could ever lose anyone other than another Republican candidate. If you don’t vote for them, there are plenty of others who will.

And you thought it was only federal employees who were non-essential.

Washington Drama Queens

Legislation to continue funding the federal government after Monday, continues to ping-pong between the House and the Senate.

In Sunday’s wee hours, the House passed a new version of H.J. Res. 59, the Continuing Appropriations Resolution 2014, with a poison pill potent enough to ensure its rejection by the Senate.

By a vote of 231-192, the House agreed to send to the Senate a measure that would keep the government open for another six weeks, until Dec. 15, but would delay the roll-out of the Affordable Care Act, aka Obamacare, for a year and would delay contraceptive coverage for women from employer-paid health insurance policies.

All three of Nebraska’s members of Congress, Lee Terry, Adrian Smith and Jeff Fortenberry, voted for the measure.

Just two days earlier, the Senate stripped out a similar attempt to kill Obamacare and passed a “clean” funding measure on a vote of 54-44, with both Nebraska senators, Mike Johanns and Deb Fischer, voting against the clean bill.

Although the Republicans control the House, Democrats control the Senate. With the votes of just 51 of the 54 Democrats in the Senate, Majority Leader Harry Reid could essentially kill the House’s version of the resolution. That would only add pressure to Speaker John Boehner to come up with a spending measure that does not defund the Affordable Care Act.

Sen. Reid has assured Boehner that a provision to kill or delay Obamacare will never pass the Senate and, even if does, it faces a certain veto from President Obama, and Republicans lack the votes to override that veto.

Altogether, it means a government shutdown at 12:01 Tuesday, the same day Americans now without health insurance can start shopping for coverage. The full roll-out of the Affordable Care Act begins Jan. 1.

The House’s move to delay Obamacare for a year seems to be just a set-up for continuing chaos in Washington. Twelve months from now, the House will still be controlled by the Republicans, the Democrats will still control the Senate, and President Obama will still be president. Because the Republican measure funds the government only until Dec. 15, the likelihood of a government shutdown over the holidays would continue to loom large.

The House also passed a provision Sunday that would keep paychecks flowing to the military personnel in the event of a shutdown, but some 7,000 other government employees would be without paychecks for the duration.

Also looming on the horizon is the additional drama that will come in October from raising the debt ceiling. House Republicans now plan to hold an increase in the debt ceiling hostage to a laundry list of GOP priorities, including a year-long delay of the ACA and approval of the Keystone XL pipeline.

Raising the debt ceiling has nothing to do with future government spending. It merely gives the government the authorization to pay the bills that Congress has already incurred from previous budgets. By not raising the debt ceiling, Congress ensures that government bills will go unpaid.

Defaulting on financial obligations has much the same creditworthy-crashing effect on our government as it would on any household, only the impact on world markets would be 300 million percent larger.

More chaos. More drama. When does it stop?

Brinksmanship

The House of Representatives began debate Thursday on measures that would fund the government after Sept. 30, giving an official form to the war over a government shutdown.

The spending measure, however, is paired with one that would repeal Obamacare. There is very little chance that anti-health care reform senators could muster enough votes in the Democratic-controlled Senate to defund Obamacare, so the House opposition is largely ceremonial.

Even if Republicans do find the votes, President Obama has promised to veto any bill that cuts funding for Obamacare.

Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas, the leading rhetorical bomb-thrower in the Affordable Care Act fight, concedes that defunding the ACA has little chance in the Senate, so it will be up to the Republican-controlled House to make the last stand.

Over the summer, Cruz and the conservative Heritage Foundation staged a nationwide series of anti-Obamacare rallies. His backtrack has attracted understandable criticism from House members. The House has voted 41 times to defund Obamacare, while Cruz’s fight has been limited to rallies, Tweets and Facebook posts, which have given him a measure of Republican celebrity, but have contributed nothing to the legislative process.

Nebraska’s delegation is divided by the issues.

Sen. Deb Fischer — Supports the strategy to tie Obamacare to continued funding of the government. Fischer told Nebraska Radio Network on Thursday that she doesn’t want a government shutdown, but that it might be the only way to force her colleagues in Washington to begin to take seriously the issue of spending and debt. nebraskaradionetwork.com

Sen. Mike Johanns — Has opposed Obamacare, but also described efforts to tie Obamacare to a government shutdown as “not a realistic plan.”The senior senator from Nebraska also noted that the ruckus being raised by Sens. Cruz, Marco Rubio of Florida and Rand Paul of Kentucky was good for the trio’s presidential aspirations but would not be good for the country.

Rep. Lee Terry (1st District) — Supports the Republican strategy. “Obamacare is worthy of throwing yourself on the sword,” he told U.S. News & World Reports. usnews.com

Rep. Jeff Fortenberry (2nd District) — Told an August town hall that he would oppose measures that would lead to a government shutdown and noted that President Obama would never sign any legislation that defunded the ACA. Fortenberry also said he would like to avoid another round of indiscriminate, across-the-board sequester budget cuts.

Rep. Adrian Smith (3rd District) — His official web site shows past support for killing Obamacare and a desire for a constitutional amendment requiring a balanced budget, but does not address the current situation on either topic. There were no related returns on a Google search.