A simple thought experiment: If you leave at 7:55 p.m. for a concert all the way across town that starts at 8 p.m., do you have any right to blame the traffic for making you late?
That analogy applies to the United States Senate these days. Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-New York, tried on Thursday to blame conservative Republicans for a potential government shutdown. But the blame lies squarely on Schumer’s shoulders, for having mismanaged the Senate’s floor schedule all fall, to the point that he wants senators to pass an entire year’s worth of activity between now and Christmas. Consider the issues Schumer will put at lawmakers’ feet, with only days or hours to spare before a legislative deadline:
Pileup 1: Government Spending Bills
This kerfuffle occupied most of Congress’ time the past week, with an agreement finally reached late on Thursday. On Tuesday afternoon, Sen. Mike Lee, R-Utah, announced that he would not agree to limit debate on a spending bill to fund the government absent explicit language banning President Biden’s vaccine mandates. Because government funding expired at midnight Friday, and because clearing a bill through all the procedural hoops in the Senate could take a better part of a week (i.e., well past midnight Friday), Lee recognized he had leverage—and was willing to use it.
Ultimately, Lee and his colleagues agreed to a vote on an amendment defunding the mandates in exchange for expedited consideration of the spending bill. The amendment was defeated 50-48 (no Democrats voted for it; two Republicans were absent), and the spending bill subsequently passed.
While all Senate Republicans have supported ending the federal vaccine mandates, they disagreed on whether Lee’s strategy of potentially forcing a government shutdown represented the best way to defang a series of mandates that several courts have already struck down. But many of them, like Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-South Carolina, said “I don’t think anybody can be overly surprised that Sen. Lee” would employ his tactics, given Schumer’s failure to plan. As former Senate Majority Whip John Cornyn, R-Texas, noted: “When you put things off to the last minute, you empower individual senators to say ‘I don’t agree.’ If you plan better and you anticipate these differences….This is pretty predictable and unfortunate.”
This same problem struck Sen. Mitch McConnell, R-Kentucky, three years ago, when trying to “jam” senators at the last minute meant the federal government blundered into a brief shutdown because McConnell’s home-state colleague Sen. Rand Paul, R-Kentucky, wouldn’t accelerate consideration of a spending bill. But the fault didn’t lay with Paul then, nor did it lay with Lee now. The fault lay in the respective Senate leaders’ hands, for failing to plan far enough in advance and anticipate potential objections.
Pileup 2: Debt Limit
This week’s showdown on the appropriations measure served as both a precursor and warning to a similar standoff regarding the debt limit. The Treasury Department has indicated Congress should act on the issue by December 15, and while some Republicans (wrongly) want to help Democrats enact an increase, there has been no agreement announced as of yet. Meanwhile, the clock continues to tick.
The situation has gotten so bad that congressional leaders are now reportedly debating whether to attach the debt limit increase to the annual defense authorization bill—a move that suggests a sense of desperation. Schumer doubtless hopes that the move will compel pro-defense Republicans to “swallow” a multi-trillion-dollar increase in the name of supporting the troops. But the gambit could just as easily prove too clever by half, with fiscal conservatives voting against the bill because of the debt limit increase, and antiwar progressives voting against the bill because of the defense spending.
Pileup 3: Scheduled Medicare Spending Reductions
The spending bill Congress cleared on Thursday did not take action to undo a series of mandatory spending reductions, which will hit Medicare hardest, set to take effect early next year. One report noted that “Democrats have pledged to find another legislative vehicle to address the…funding reductions next year.”
Here again, the problem is entirely of Democrats’ making, on multiple levels:
- The spending reductions next year will arise because of a sequester required under the Statutory Pay-As-You-Go Act. That sequester will take place because Democrats passed a $1.9 trillion COVID spending blowout along party lines back in March.
- While lawmakers have traditionally passed a waiver avoiding potential sequester cuts before they take effect, Republicans feel no need to cushion the blow of Democrats’ last multi-trillion-dollar spending binge when Democrats have spent most of the fall trying to pass another budget-busting bill (as I had predicted they would back in February). So Republican leaders insisted on leaving a waiver out of the spending bill that passed on Thursday.
- In theory, Democrats can pass a standalone bill waiving the reductions through the House, and Schumer could attempt to find 10 Senate Republicans willing to cross party lines and enact it. Schumer could make such a move yet this year—but doing so would take up Senate floor time that he wants to devote to passing the Build Back Bankrupt plan instead.
As with the potential shutdown-that-wasn’t, Chuck Schumer will try to blame Republicans when the spending reductions take effect in a few weeks. But it’s not Republicans’ job to fix his bad COVID law—or to cede their procedural rights because he decides to mismanage the Senate floor. If Schumer wants to find the true culprit for all these problems, he need only look in the mirror.