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Policy fights could mean another shutdown threat

While the super committee and its Nov. 23 deadline commands most of the attention on Capitol Hill, another important deadline looms in the near future: Nov. 18th, the day when the government runs out of money.

The most recently-passed continuing resolution -- or short-term extension of government spending -- is set to expire in 18 days, and it's unclear whether Republicans and Democrats can come together in time to avoid (again) a dreaded government shutdown.

And so-called "policy riders," measures that are attached to spending legislation to advance a policy agenda, could threaten to ensnare a new agreement despite little interest among Democrats or Republicans in a shutdown.

Political squabbling has kept Congress from passing a formal, yearlong budget for over 900 days now, meaning the government has continued to be funded be a series of these short-term fixes. Aides on both sides of the aisle on Capitol Hill are cognizant of the low public appetite for a shutdown; previous budget fights have contributed to poor approval of lawmakers work. For instance, 82 percent of Americans expressed disapproval of Congress in an October AP-Gfk poll.

Nevertheless, because the contemporary political environment is so heated, some on Capitol Hill fear the needed government funding bill could fall victim to well-worn political dividing lines between the two parties.

At the heart of this fear lie the riders. They are routinely attached to appropriations bills, though they often have nothing to do with funding the government. For example, during the last showdown earlier this spring, the issue of abortion and whether or not groups like Planned Parenthood should be eligible for federal funds played a central role up until an 11th hour agreement was reached. Sensing these types of issues could come up again, House Minority Whip Steny Hoyer (D-MD) has sent House Speaker John Boehner (R-OH) a letter asking that controversial riders not be included in any budget deal.

“While not all policy riders are objectionable, many of those included this year are not only controversial but blatantly partisan," Hoyer wrote. "Included riders would block the implementation of the Affordable Care Act, roll back important clean air and clean water protections, and place new restrictions on women’s access to a full range of medical and health services, among others."

Last month Boehner dismissed talk of policy riders saying they had been included in appropriations bills for years. A House GOP aide tells NBC News, “The Democrats who run Washington are trying to pick a fight on unrelated issues because they can’t face the facts: we aren’t going to get our economy moving again and create jobs until we get government spending under control.”

The question becomes, then, which side has an upper hand in the fight? House Democrats are banking on the notion that Boehner will not be able to secure enough Republican votes to pass a budget without Democratic support. If this is the case, the GOP won’t be able to include any controversial policy riders in order to attract the Democratic support they’ll need to avert a shutdown. But if Republicans stick together, and can produce 218 votes for any budget deal out of the House, Hoyer will be stymied, and Boehner will negotiate a more favorable deal with Senate Democrats. 

The text of the whole letter is below:

Dear Mr. Speaker:

We write with deep concern about the inclusion of policy riders in FY2012 appropriations legislation.  As you know, there is longstanding precedent not to use appropriations bills to enact major changes in national policy, and the bills being reported from Appropriations subcommittees this year violate that precedent. 

While not all policy riders are objectionable, many of those included this year are not only controversial but blatantly partisan.  Included riders would block the implementation of the Affordable Care Act, roll back important clean air and clean water protections, and place new restrictions on women’s access to a full range of medical and health services, among others.  These appropriations bills appear to any knowledgeable observer as an attempt to push through both chambers an extreme, partisan agenda outside the regular order you so strongly advocated in the Pledge to America, which declares an end to “the practice of packaging unpopular bills with ‘must-pass’ legislation to circumvent the will of the American people.”

As appropriators continue working to meet funding thresholds in the Budget Control Act, it is important that Republicans not risk a government shutdown by playing politics with appropriations bills.  Democrats oppose the inclusion of controversial policy riders, which are unlikely to pass the Senate, and we urge you to see that they are removed. The American people expect Congress to take the necessary steps to create jobs for the middle class, spur the growth of our economy, and lower our deficits, and it is our hope that Republicans will work with Democrats on a bipartisan path forward that will meet these expectations as well as the obligations set forth in the Budget Control Act.