Government Shutdown Could Occur Even If Budget Deal Is Reached

04/06/2011 04:08 pm ET | Updated Jun 06, 2011
  • Sam Stein Senior Politics Editor, The Huffington Post

WASHINGTON -- Even if Congressional negotiators reach a deal by the end of the week on a budget resolution that would last through the fiscal year, the government could still shut down, at least for a short period of time.

While leaders in both parties continue to debate everything from how much money to cut from current spending levels to which programs should get the ax, there remains some dispute over the procedural process to pass the final bill.

Under rules adopted by the House Republicans, the chamber must allow for 72 hours of debate before voting on legislation. There is disagreement as to whether the rule means that, literally, 72 hours have to pass. If that’s the case, then the window to avert a government shutdown has already passed. Another interpretation, offered by GOP officials in the past, is that three business days must expire before a vote, meaning that if parties agree to a deal by the end of Wednesday they will still be allowed to vote on it on Friday.

With talks still ongoing, the latter scenario seems implausible. But as of Wednesday morning, House GOP leadership wasn’t yet ready to commit to waiving the 72-hour rule.

“The three day rule could certainly be an issue,” one GOP aide emailed The Huffington Post. “Democrats shouldn’t underestimate our commitment to that reform.”

In fact, Democrats do underestimate the GOP’s commitment to it, and for a simple reason: House Republicans have played loose with the rules in the past, including last week when the party passed a measure dictating that their version of a budget resolution would become law should Congress on a whole act.

“If they say that’s a reason for delay, they’re full of it [or] hiding behind [the rule] when it’s convenient to them,” said a House Democratic aide.

Political observers not in the heart of the budget debate say they would be shocked if the House GOP didn’t simply waive the rule. “They can and they probably will,” said Norm Ornstein, a fellow at the American Enterprise Institute and an expert on congressional procedures. “They have promised they wouldn’t be waving the rule but those are not promises cast in stone or cement.”

But even if the House finds a way to wean itself off its non-cemented rules, a continuing resolution still faces procedural hurdles in the United States Senate. Any bill introduced in that chamber is subject to two cloture votes -- each of which comes with 30 hours of amendments and debate. The majority leader can ask for a unanimous consent agreement to circumvent those two 30-hour windows, but if one Senator objects, the unanimous consent fails. If negotiations over a budget end less than 60-hours before government funding dries up, then a GOP member of that chamber could redefine the notion of being a stick-in-the-mud.

Aides in the upper chamber said that they haven’t given too much thought or concern to the procedural aspects of getting a budget bill passed. “It’s possible that one Senator could [scuttle things],” said one top Democratic aide, “but our focus has been on getting a deal done and the belief is that the rest would fall into place.”

“Here's the bottom line,” Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) said at a breakfast sponsored by POLITICO on Wednesday morning, “if we come to an agreement, the procedural stuff will somehow work its way out.”

The Obama administration, however, has at least discussed contingency plans. On Tuesday, President Obama said he would support a two or three-day stopgap funding measure should lawmakers need the time to file paperwork.

“It would have to be clean and very short term,” explained one administration aide.

That willingness to improvise, observers say, is just one reason why it’s unlikely that a budget deal will be tripped up by procedural hurdles. The other is the political backlash that seems likely to occur should an agreement be delayed because either formal or informal rules got in the way.

“My guess, especially now because you are talking about military pay here… is that anyone who stood up and blocked even a two-to-three day CR extension that ends up with our military not being paid then they are going to get a lot of criticism for it,” said Ornstein.