Business Times - 31 Mar 2011
Playing the blame game for US budget stalemate
By LEON HADAR
TENSIONS are rising on Capitol Hill. The political rhetoric is getting ugly. And the suspense is growing: Will US lawmakers be able to work out a budget deal as soon as possible so as to avert a shutdown of the federal government?
Now wait a minute. Haven't we seen that movie before? In fact, an earlier version of 'The Coming Government Shutdown' was screened only two weeks ago just before a brief Congressional break. During the last scene, we held our breath as Democratic and Republican lawmakers, after failing to agree on a substantive budget compromise, ended up negotiating a last-minute deal, a so-called 'stopgap' that provided funding for the operations of the federal government until April 8.
That stopgap was the second in what some expect to be a series of several short-term deals between the two parties that - in theory, at least - could keep the government open until the end of this fiscal year.
In any case, the last legislative ceasefire is coming to an end. The lawmakers are back in Washington and both Republicans and Democrats are suggesting that reaching a federal budget accord in Congress by the April 8 deadline appears unlikely. And if President Barack Obama doesn't sign a new spending bill, the federal government would shut down on April 9.
Hence, the 'blame game' we are witnessing now. The leaders of both parties insist that they still want to pass a comprehensive budget deal for the rest of the year and are trying to blame the leaders of the other party for the legislative deadlock.
But the fact remains that the Democrats, who still have the majority in the Senate, and the Republicans, who control the House of Representatives, are substantially apart over where and by how much federal government spending should be cut - reflecting a deep ideological split between the two major political parties.
And let's remember that the current debate is over the size of this year's budget, and is taking place before Congress has been able to start discussing next year's budget plan - not to mention any serious proposal for cuts in the budget deficit.
The Republicans are demanding major cuts in spending on social and economic programmes while Democrats warn that such a drastic step could slowdown the economic recovery and devastate unemployed and poor Americans who depend on government assistance as their main source of income.
The Democrats are pointing their fingers at Republican lawmakers affiliated with the Tea Party movement as the main obstacles to reaching a deal. Arriving in Washington in the aftermath of the resounding Republican victory in last year's mid-term elections, these members of the most conservative wing of the Republican Party, who accuse the Obama administration of trying to take control of the economy and transform America into a socialist country, are threatening not to support a budget deal that doesn't include large spending cuts - even if that leads to the shutdown of the government.
House Republicans have called for US$61 billion in cuts from last year's spending levels and they have already approved a budget plan along these lines. But the Democrats - backed by the Obama White House - are making it clear that they will not allow the Senate to approve such cuts.
The two earlier stopgap bills have cut US$10 billion from government spending in this year's budget. And the Democrats are probably willing to cut around US$20 billion more. But the Republicans will only accept a figure that is close to their original US$61 billion in cuts for the fiscal year that ends on Sept 30.
If the US government ends up shutting down, 'it will be because Senate Democrats refused to offer a real proposal that cuts spending and because the White House flatly refused to lead', according to House Republican Leader Eric Cantor. But the Democrats counter that since the Republicans are now in control of the House, they should be blamed if the government shuts down.
During 1995-1996 shutdowns of the federal government, the majority of Americans sympathised with Democratic President Bill Clinton while blaming the Republicans, who were in control of the House of Representatives, for the shutdown. Those public sentiments forced the Republicans to back down and reach a budget compromise with the Democrats.
But recent opinion polls suggest that the American public is divided over which party should be blamed for the current legislative deadlock in the budget negotiations. That political reality serves as a backdrop for the blame game taking place on Capitol Hill.
As Senator Barbara Boxer, a Democrat from California, told reporters on Tuesday: 'The clock is ticking.'
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