Budget Battle: Is the Government on the Brink of a Shutdown?

Tea Party groups say the $33 billion compromise figure is far from acceptable.

April 1, 2011, 5:50 PM

April 4, 2011— -- Members of Congress are working behind closed doors to hash out a deal to fund the government for the remainder of the fiscal year as federal workers nervously prepare contingency plans.

But just five days away from the deadline, the threat of a government shutdown looks more real than it has in recent weeks as pressure from the Tea Party and conservative lawmakers mounts.

Democratic sources indicated last week that the two sides had agreed $33 billion would be slashed from the 2011 budget. But the GOP leadership has downplayed those reports amid calls from their caucus that the number is far from acceptable.

"Heck no, it's not enough," freshman Rep. Joe Walsh, R-Ill., a Tea Party supporter, told ABC News. "The deficit and the debt that we're under right now demand a bigger number.

"In general, I'd be very disappointed in an amount like that and I'd have a real hard time supporting it," said Walsh, who bucked his party last month and voted against the last temporary extension.

Lawmakers narrowly averted two shutdowns in recent weeks by passing short-term stopgap measures. But a growing number of Republicans, pressured by Tea Party groups, say they won't support such a move again, even it results in a government shutdown.

On March 15, 54 Republicans rebelled against their party's leadership to vote against a temporary extension, and with growing agitation over the budget, more are likely to jump on that bandwagon.

Walsh and many of his colleagues say they want to stick to the $61 billion in cuts proposed in the original continuing resolution that passed on Feb. 19. The two short-term extensions cut a total of $10 billion.

To some Tea Party groups, even that's not enough.

The $33 billion figure is "an insult to every hardworking American taxpayer," said Mark Meckler, national coordinator for Tea Party Patriots, which held a rally on Capitol Hill last week to pressure lawmakers not to cave in to Democratic demands. "What we're asking for is $100 billion total. What we're asking Congress to do is remove roughly 2.6 cents of every federal dollar spent."

Though Tea Party groups argue that the figure is hardly draconian, coming together on what should be cut will not be an easy task.

Democrats already have rejected a series of proposals being floated by House Republicans, charging they are using the budget to push their social and ideological agendas.

"We are not going to bend on some of these ridiculous riders they have," said Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., on Friday.

Republicans want to contain the Environmental Protection Agency's ability to restrict greenhouse gas emissions, a mandate that has expanded in the Obama administration. The budget bill would include a measure that would eliminate funding for the EPA to regulate emissions polluters like power plants and refineries.

Another controversial measure would strip Planned Parenthood of any funding that it receives from the federal government, and reinstate the "Mexico City policy" that bars organizations that promote or provide abortion services from receiving U.S. government funds. The policy was turned back under President Obama.

The GOP also is likely to target Medicaid and, most importantly, health care reform, which lawmakers -- especially freshman Republicans -- have made clear they want to see de-funded.

"I think the American people are ready for a fight," Walsh said. "They're ready for a debate on Obamacare. So you know what, if we want to have this all out right now on funding Obamacare, let's do it. I think it's worth it."

Democrats argue that Republicans are injecting their own pork projects without compromising on any of their interests.

The GOP measures "essentially are efforts to impose a right-wing social agenda through the budget," Rep. Chris Van Hollen, D-Md., said on MSNBC Friday. "The position Republicans seem to be taking is you've got to cut from our menu. In other words, we're not going to consider tax breaks for the oil companies, or we're not going to consider some of the other pork in the tax -- you've got to look at our menu only. And that's not going to be acceptable."

Republicans counter by saying that they haven't seen any concrete proposals from Senate Democrats and President Obama, even though the House passed its continuing resolution more than a month ago.

"The White House has been absent when it comes to the real tough spending issues like entitlement reform," Walsh said. "He should be ashamed of himself."

House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, walks on a thin rope this week as the deadline to pass a continuing resolution slowly creeps closer. On the one hand, he has to forge a compromise. On the other, the newly-minted speaker faces increasing pressure from the Tea Party wing of his party to stick firm to principles.

The leadership "personally, I don't think they're strong enough. I think the American public is looking for more," Meckler said. "We're hoping to see them stick to their spine. At a minimum, they ought to stand behind their own CR."

Though he has emphasized that shutting down the government is not the goal, Boehner is placing the blame squarely on Senate Democrats.

Even so, the prospects of a government shutdown hardly are comforting to either side.

The partial government shutdown of 1996 -- the last time it happened -- was hugely unpopular and Republicans, who were in the majority in Congress, took most of the blame.

In an ABC News/Washington Post poll conducted shortly after the nearly three-week partial shutdown ended, 75 percent of Americans said it had been a "bad thing" and 50 percent of Americans blamed the Republicans in Congress. Only 27 percent said President Clinton's administration was to blame.

This time, however, the politics at play are vastly different and Republicans -- fuelled by Tea Party fervor -- are confident if a shutdown were to happen, it wouldn't be as detrimental to their party as the last time around.

"If shutting down the government is what it takes to wake the other side up to get us on the appropriate path, then maybe it is a good thing," Walsh said. "I hope we don't get to that point, but if that's what it takes for the other side to join us, then maybe it's a very helpful thing."

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