Parents have begun arranging alternative child care for their preschoolers, uncertain whether their Head Start program will be there when they need it. The Social Security Administration is unable to open new hearing offices to handle a backlog of appeals. The Pentagon has had to delay equipment repairs. There is chaos throughout the federal government, as Robert Pear reported in The Times on Tuesday, because a riven Congress has forced agencies to operate on a week-by-week basis.
Yet on Tuesday, the House passed another short-term spending bill. This one keeps things going for all of three weeks. The Senate will almost certainly join in shortly to avoid an impending shutdown on Friday, the result of the stopgap bill from two weeks ago.
These slipshod exercises in governance were choreographed by House Republicans, who knew that neither the Senate nor President Obama would ever accept their original proposal to gut nonsecurity discretionary spending with $61 billion in cuts through September, including riders to end financing for Planned Parenthood and the health care law. They had hoped to use the pressure of a potential shutdown to achieve much of their goal, but so far, all they have accomplished is a cut of about $10 billion, mostly from earmarks or programs that the president himself proposed to cut. (The new bill cuts $6 billion.)
House Republican leaders, who say they do not want a government shutdown, have, so far, held off their more fanatical freshmen, who want to slash everything in sight. But the leadership cannot do so forever, and the evidence of that was clear on Tuesday. More than 50 Republicans refused to go along with the three-week resolution because it did not cut enough. Several specifically complained that it allowed financing for Planned Parenthood and the health care law to continue.
This is not a group that cares much for pragmatic compromise, and the three weeks are just a timeout. Representative Mike Pence of Indiana, a Republican who voted no on the new bill, spoke for many of his colleagues when he said the budget could not be resolved without a willingness to shut down government. “By giving liberals in the Senate another three weeks of negotiations,” he said, “we will only delay a confrontation that must come.”
He is absolutely right about that. If Democrats, including the president, do not draw a clear line soon, making their priorities and their limits unmistakable, they will be harried by these kinds of votes for years. Even in the unlikely case that an agreement is reached in three weeks to finance the government through September, a different vote will be necessary just a few weeks from now to raise the debt ceiling. Republicans have already vowed to vote that down — even though it could be financially disastrous — if they do not get their way. And then there is the vote for the fiscal 2012 budget, which begins Oct. 1, and then the year after that.
At some point, Mr. Pence will get his confrontation. If Republicans continue to press for cuts of tens of billions from discretionary spending, setting back the economic recovery largely for ideological purposes, Democrats will have to say no, even if that results in a short-term shutdown. The American people will be able to figure out who is at fault. Responsible governing means agreeing quickly to a deal to finish out the fiscal year, and then starting a serious talk about entitlement programs and taxes — the real causes of a soaring deficit.