A new possibility for resolving the government shutdown, at least in part: House Republicans are reportedly considering passing several measures to fund a few government functions, instead of the whole thing. On the one hand, this suggests that the Democrats' "no piecemeal negotiations" strategy is working. On the other, it could put the Senate in one of its toughest positions yet.
The new tactic was discussed during a meeting of the House caucus on Tuesday afternoon. According to Politico, the lucky subsets of the government are veterans affairs, the National Park Service, and the functioning of the city of Washington (where most members of Congress live, at least part-time). They would join the already-blessed military, which was granted a similar funding extension before the shutdown went into effect. Giving us four castes of government work: the military, the photo-op friendly ones that the House wants to fund today, the excepted employees at work even during the shutdown, and everyone else.
From two Fridays ago, when the House passed its first budget resolution with an amendment cutting out Obamacare funding, Senate Democrats have responded the same way: no deal. That military exemption was the only time in which the Senate has deviated from its all-or-nothing call for a clean funding resolution, even flatly rejecting a conference committee meeting with Republicans while the government stays shut.
This new proposal from the House suggests that the Senate strategy is effective. Americans predominantly blame Republicans for the shutdown (for good reason). The images of veterans swarming the World War II memorial, for example, proved irresistible to the media and media-friendly Republicans. The Republicans have gone from saying, in essence, "we're fine with no government at all" to "well, OK, this part of government is important and we will fight for it." It's an erosion of their own position, similar to their perceived backtracking from a full defunding of Obamacare in early budget proposals to a one-year delay in the most recent iteration. The Senate, by just saying no, is forcing the House to step away from its positions.
But if the House passes these resolutions, it could be tricky for the Senate. While at least one Senate aide told MSNBC's Benjy Sarlin that there was "no chance" of the Senate approving the bills, it risks making them the bad guys. After all, Americans blame Republicans for the shutdown. If the Senate says, No, we won't fund the national parks, it allows Republicans to turn that denial into a point of focus. "We wanted to fund veterans' services," they will certainly argue, "but the Democrats in the Senate said no." As we noted earlier, any fracturing of Senate opposition dramatically changes the calculus of resolving the shutdown.
From a policy standpoint, the idea of switching on the lights in one government agency at a time is a particularly bad idea. Who's the last to get funding back? Republicans certainly won't prioritize the Environmental Protection Agency, so would Democrats have to negotiate, agency-by-agency, for their priorities? What incentive would there be for Republicans to provide funding to agencies and programs they dislike — like the IRS or Obamacare? And even within the Republican Party, where are the priorities? Defense intelligence departments have furloughed 70 percent of their civilian staff. That's surely a higher priority for the GOP, policy-wise, but it's far less appealing politically. It's like donations to endangered polar bears versus the at-risk blob fish. Choosing which agencies you want to save a la carte, based on political appeal, is tremendously bad precedent. But the Republicans need all the political help they can get.
Senate Democrats will likely get some backup from the termed-out guy in the White House. During Tuesday's press briefing, White House spokesman Jay Carney was asked if President Obama would sign the new proposals. "You know, daily now, hourly, we're asked to respond to floated proposals, some of which never come to fruition," Carney responded. Without addressing the specific programs at play, he offered the president's guiding principle: "If [Republicans] want to open the government then they should open the government." In total. If you want ESPN, you gotta fund C-SPAN, too.