WASHINGTON -- Coming back from its Independence Day vacation, Congress appeared no closer Tuesday to finding a way to avoid yet another government shutdown showdown in the fall.
Democrats who are angry that Republicans have proposed spending bills that hike defense while continuing to cut other domestic programs have begun to filibuster all of those appropriations measures in the Senate, saying it's the only way to make Republicans negotiate and compromise on some items sought by Democrats and President Barack Obama. Obama has also threatened to veto those bills.
Asked if Congress was indeed headed for another shutdown battle -- and whether that was wise -- the second-ranking Democrat in the House, Minority Whip Steny Hoyer, answered that the unwise choice was for Congress to maintain the so-called sequestration spending levels it passed in 2011 when it was also unable to agree on debt and spending cuts.
"In world of alternatives, it is not wise to pursue sequester numbers. That’s bad for our country," Hoyer said, referring to the automatic, across-the-board cuts set in the 2011 Budget Control Act, which also raised the nation's debt limit.
The Republican budget calls for spending that eases sequestration on defense, but not on other areas, and the defense spending bill uses some $38 billion in "overseas contingency operation" funds -- essentially war funding that doesn't count against sequestration -- to boost the rest of the military.
I would hope that Republicans do the right thing. Steny Hoyer
Democrats see that as a gimmick that both ducks reality and avoids dealing with other pressing domestic needs such as education and infrastructure needs. The Senate filibustered the bill last month.
"Like Harold Rogers [the House Appropriations Committee chairman], who pulled a bill last year and said that this was ill-advised and unrealistic to pursue sequester... I think it is the only rational policy to follow in saying, 'This is not going to work, you know it’s not going to work,'" Hoyer said.
Republicans showed no sign of agreeing with Hoyer and other Democrats, however.
“Democrats must decide whether they support our troops or not," said Kevin Smith, a spokesman for House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio), focusing on the defense bill. "In a time of grave threats to our nation, Democrats are denying funding for our troops, their families, and the nation’s veterans in order to extract more government spending on Washington bureaucracies like the IRS and the EPA. They are putting their political interests ahead of the most important priority we have –- protecting our nation –- and that is unconscionable.”
Hoyer mocked the GOP position, since it agrees with Obama on the level of spending for the military, although Obama's budget doesn't use the contingency fund to pay for the boosts.
"It’s ironic," Hoyer said, "that the Republicans used a gimmick to get to his numbers."
Hoyer was not convinced that the GOP would even be able to pass all of the 12 required appropriations bills in time, since so far they've gotten to six.
He insisted Democrats were correct in trying to force them to negotiate a more two-sided spending plan.
"I think we’re doing the right thing. I think the Senate is doing the right thing, and I would hope that Republicans do the right thing and sit down and discuss what are not unrealistic but realistic numbers, not an ill-conceived plan, but a well-conceived plan, to move ahead on the appropriations process," Hoyer said.
Not incidentally, if Congress is still fighting over spending bills in September, when the fiscal year ends, not only will it be facing a government shutdown, but also a looming exhaustion of the nation's current $18.1 trillion debt limit. The country hit the limit in March, and the Treasury Department has been employing what are known as "extraordinary measures" to keep the bills paid. That ability should run out around November, at which point the nation would be facing a default if Congress does not act to raise the debt cap.
Michael McAuliff covers Congress and politics for The Huffington Post. Talk to him on Facebook.