With Reporting By Zach Carter And Elise Foley
WASHINGTON -- Just hours after President Barack Obama insisted, in a rare news conference, that "there should be no reason at all for a government shut down" over budgetary debates, his office issued a veto threat to a Republican spending bill that ratcheted up talk of forthcoming government paralysis.
In a statement of administration policy released Tuesday night, the Office of Management and Budget formally announced the president's threat to veto a continuing resolution bill introduced by House Republicans to keep the government funded past March 4. The line in the sand hardly sent shock waves through Congress. Obama's opposition to the measure seemed almost pre-ordained, owing to the bill's sharp spending cuts on issues that Democrats hold dear: the Peace Corps, Pell Grants, and labor programs among others.
What the OMB statement did do, however, was up the stakes in what is setting up to be a contentious, high-stakes period before the government runs out of money in a matter of weeks. One top Republican aide, echoing the sentiment of colleagues on the Hill, called the veto threat "pure brinksmanship."
In terms of political theater, however, Monday's OMB statement was far from the first or the last act. For weeks, Republicans and Democrats have engaged in a fantastical effort to pre-cast blame for possibly shutting down of government operations. The back-and-forth cumulated with House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-VA.) insisting that talk of stopping government operations was not the GOP's "intentions" and Rep. Mike Simpson (R-Idaho), head of the Appropriations subcommittee on Interior and the Environment, proclaiming that "leadership does not want a government shutdown."
As of Tuesday, however, those statements weren't declarative enough to satisfy Democrats. House Minority Whip Steny Hoyer said on Tuesday that if the government were to run out of funds it would be the GOP's fault. Senator Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.), one of the loudest prognosticators of a coming shut down, followed with bravado.
"I don't think a single Democrat is even entertaining the notion of trying to cause a shut down," the New York Democrat told the Huffington Post. "There are many Republicans who have already said they want a shut down and their leadership, even when asked repeatedly has not taken it off the table. So we are trying to get them to take it off the table."
What role the administration's veto threat will play in this, predominantly, congressional drama remains to be determined. Democratic officials stressed that the OMB statement was a mundane if not uneventful maneuver. The bill that House Republicans had constructed, which would slash spending $60 billion from current spending levels, will almost assuredly change before making it to the president's desk, with a Democratic controlled Senate having earlier sign off. Even then, the president and his staff had been deliberately vague about what, exactly, was the source of their objections in the CR.
"Basically, we think this bill will change and we didn't think it was necessary to include specifics for what would specifically trigger a veto," said a Democratic source familiar with the administration's thinking.
Underscoring that point, as the administration formally released the president's veto threat, lawmakers started the lengthy process of considering more than 400 amendments to the CR. In a rare show of unified action, the Congressional Progressive Caucus took to the floor to ostensibly filibuster the bill by using an obscure House rule known as "striking the last word," which allows members to speak, one after another, for up to five minutes about a single amendment. Rep. Steve Cohen (D-Tenn.) read from a recent New York Time's oped by Paul Krugman titled "Eat the Future." Others turned their attention to a proposal by Rep. Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.) to cut $18 million from the defense budget, which Rep. John Garamendi (D-Calif.) called "a start."
"You might take it forward and say, 'Let's end the war in Afghanistan where we're spending $120 billion,'" added the California Democrat.
Republicans were left with few other options other than showing their disdain for the theatrics and plotting next step forwards. Cantor's top spokesman, Brad Dayspring, accused the White House and congressional Democrats of having a "visceral reaction," to GOP efforts to "save taxpayers' money."
On more of a tactical level, talk turned to how to handle a potential shutdown, and whether the Republican Party would be able to maneuver through that scenario better than the last time: the funding showdowns during the Billl Clinton's first term in office.
"That was handled badly," said Terry Holt, a longtime GOP hand and a former top aide to House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio). "I don't think anyone would disagree with that. But we are talking about a very different set of players this time around and I think a very different attitude towards government spending and the budget deficit. There is a lot more that is different about what is happening today than is similar to what happened back in the early 90s."