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A Battle Over More than Money
(JIM WATSON/AFP/Getty Images)

A Battle Over More than Money

Irwin M. Stelzer

The new dawn didn’t. There was to be no more sturm und drang, no more brinkmanship, no more government shutdowns, no more threats of default on America’s debt. Just routine passage of a $1,100,000,000,000 spending bill to keep the government running until next September when the current fiscal year ends. In the event, it was only hours before midnight on Thursday, when funding of most government activities was scheduled to end, that the House of Representatives, by a vote of 219-to-206 passed the so-called continuing resolution that will keep all of the functions of government, both the necessary and the wasteful, in operation. No, it was not a split in the Republican party that brought us once again to the brink of shutdown, although some Republicans, eager to show their distaste for the president’s unilateral action in freeing millions of illegal immigrants from the threat of deportation did cause, did defect. It was the Democrats who almost succeeded in shutting down the government and President Obama, not House speaker John Boehner, who had to struggle to get this resolution passed. The battle will have important consequences for the shape of American political life during the two years remaining of his term, and perhaps far into the future. Here’s why.

This resolution does more than merely approve a continuation of existing funding arrangements. It is rather like a Christmas tree, strewn beneath with packages for congressmen who have been nice, and even some who have been naughty to the House leadership. The bill includes provisions that would:

  • raise the limits on individual political contributions from $32,400 to $324,000,
  • force the Environmental Protection Agency to reduce its staffing to the lowest level since 1989 and prevent it from applying the Clean Water Act to farm ponds and irrigation ditches,
  • make it easier for school districts to get out from under Mrs. Obama’s notions of healthy eating,
  • continue to ban the administration from transferring to the U.S. terrorists held in Guantanamo,
  • ban taxpayer funding for official portraits of executive branch employees and lawmakers,
  • prohibit the District of Columbia from legalizing marijuana, and
  • ease Dodd-Frank restrictions on derivatives trading by big banks.

All of these are anathema to liberal Democrats, but it is this latter provision that sent their blood pressure soaring beyond medically approved levels. Obama, who antagonized many Democrats by agreeing early on to sign the bill, thereby reducing their bargaining power in the waning hours of Thursday night, pointed out that the bill also includes funds for programs he and they favor. It would increase spending on early childhood education and on measures to reduce the threat of climate change, give him $5.4 billion of the $6 billion he requested to fight the spread of Ebola, and fund military actions against ISIS. The bill, in short, is a compromise, a word unused by right-wing Republicans and left-wing Democrats for so many years that it is no longer in their available vocabularies.

Oh yes, the bill also provides more funding than the president requested for security at U.S. embassies, but bans the spending of any embassy construction funds on the new £600 million U.S. embassy in London, which will now be paid for by selling off other property. If, that is, the Duke of Westminster will buy the land, which he has so far refused to do unless America compensates him for the lands taken from his ancestors during the American Revolution. But I digress.

Boehner threw a bone to his Tea Partiers by extending the funding of the Department of Homeland Security, which is to implement Obama’s new rules on illegal immigrants, only until February, rather than until September, as is the case with all other departments. That gives his hard-liners the opportunity to fight another day, although since the new immigration regulations are self-funding from fees to be paid by the immigrants, it is unclear how de-funding can reverse the president’s decision.

The president could do little to persuade Democratic defectors to support the compromise. They are looking ahead to the 2016 presidential elections and dreading the prospect of a Hillary Clinton candidacy. Too centrist for their taste. Enter Elizabeth Warren, the junior senator from Massachusetts, the scourge of Wall Street, the darling of Democratic liberals, or progressives as they prefer to be called. Warren took to the Senate podium and the airwaves to urge Republicans in the House to vote “no.”

One would ordinarily think that a junior senator with no formal role to play in shaping and passing this legislation would be overmatched going against the president, vice president, and the White House political machine. Not this time. The president, whose hauteur and, lately, his unpopularity have left him with few friends among congressional Democrats, had to rely on Vice President Joe Biden, an old political warhorse well liked in the party, to work the phones with him and round up enough votes to squeeze the bill to passage.

Warren found an ally in the minority leader of the House, Nancy Pelosi, until Thursday a loyal Obama lieutenant, but now “enormously disappointed” in him. Warren also has the support of House Democrats and important funders who are urging her to enter the lists for their party’s presidential nomination. To bolster her clout, MoveOn.org, an important source of funds for Democratic candidates, took the occasion of the battle over the funding bill to announce that it would “invest at least $1 million” to organize efforts to persuade Senator Warren to run for her party’s nomination. Which Warren denies she plans to do, although she spent the months in the run-up to last month’s congressional elections touring the country in support of liberal candidates, gathering IOUs from important Democrats.

Warren is a formidable, animated campaigner, and many observers believe that if she does run, she will easily outpoll Ms. Clinton among Democrats likely to vote in the party’s primary. Syndicated Pulitzer Prize winning columnist Charles Krauthammer thinks that would be “a joy” for Republicans. He doubts that the country wants to put another left-wing, junior senator from Harvard in the White House.

Sometimes a funding bill is just a funding bill, to borrow what Sigmund Freud is alleged to have said about cigars. This was not one such time.

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