The shutdown fight is over very, very little money

at 12:42 PM ET, 09/23/2011

Congress is at it again with another government shutdown fight. But the difference this time is that both parties are squabbling over so very little.

At the heart of the showdown is $1.6 billion in spending cuts to clean-energy programs — a pittance in the scheme of the federal budget. In exchange for $3.65 billion in disaster aid, House Republicans are demanding $1.5 billion in cuts to a fuel-efficiency program and $100 million to the clean-energy loan fund that backed Solyndra. Democrats say that a budget with any disaster aid offsets is dead on arrival in the Senate, which accordingly shot down the House budget this morning.

That isn’t the only difference between the House and Senate. Senate Democrats have also complained that $3.65 billion in disaster aid is too little, pointing to the $6.9 billion aid bill they passed last week. But both Democrats and Republicans have indicated that the real dealbreaker is the $1.6 billion in offsets, not the disaster aid funding levels.

On Thursday afternoon, House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi said a “reasonable” way forward for the House’s stopgap budget would be $3.65 billion in disaster aid without offsets, as the Huffington Post’s Jen Bendery reported. But Boehner has only doubled down on his demand for offsets, adding the $100 million in clean-energy cut on top of the $1.5 billion in offsets that the House GOP first pushed for. It’s peanuts in the scheme of things — the new $100 million cut comes from a $4 billion fund for clean-energy loans — but it was apparently enough to bring over more Republicans to pass his bill, which failed Wednesday without the “Solyndra” cuts.

The entire shutdown fight, in other words, is far more ideological than substantive: Republicans say it’s irresponsible to pass disaster aid without at least some offsets, taking a swipe at the GOP’s political target du jour — Solyndra — in the process. Democrats argue that emergency disaster aid isn’t traditionally offset and don’t want to set a precedent, adding that the clean-energy cuts would take away jobs.

What isn’t being debated? The funding for the rest of the government, which stands to expire Sept 30. That’s because both parties have stuck by August’s debt-ceiling agreement, which keeps the general operating budget at $1.043 trillion — basically matching the level of last year’s spending, with a slight across-the-board reduction. Even tea party groups seemed satisfied. When it became clear this month that the consensus would hold, Hill-watchers breathed a sigh of relief: In sharp contrast to April’s shutdown debacle, the main pot of money didn’t appear to be disputed. It still isn’t. But Congress has found a way to pick a shutdown fight anyway.

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