State delegation sidelined in House budget showdown

WASHINGTON–With Connecticut’s congressional delegation mostly on the sidelines in the current budget battle, several lawmakers expressed deep frustration with the process and their diminished role in determining the outcome.

“We don’t have a seat at the table,” said Rep. John Larson, a Democrat who represents Connecticut’s 1st District and who chairs the House Democratic Caucus. With his party now in the minority in the House, Larson pointedly noted that he’s “not in the negotiations” and has been forced to be more of a spectator than a player.

As the tussle plays out elsewhere–in dueling congressional press conferences and private White House meetings–Larson and others said they were making initial preparations for a possible government shutdown at the end of this week.

“We haven’t received instructions or guidelines, but we’re certainly thinking about… how to continue the essential operations during a shut down,” said Democratic Sen. Richard Blumenthal.

As Connecticut’s junior senator, Blumenthal said his main avenue into the debate is conveying to the Senate’s Majority Leader, Harry Reid of Nevada, his opposition to deep cuts in domestic spending and GOP policy provisions that he fears will diminish women’s access to health services.

Similarly in the House, Larson and others said their voice in the debate was limited. “That’s what’s called being in the minority,” Larson said. “I hope the president speaks up.”

Asked if he felt President Barack Obama was not being aggressive enough in pushing back against the Republican’s proposed cuts, Larson simply repeated that statement. He then said that, since he wasn’t in the budget talks, it was hard for him to judge how forceful the president was being.

At issue is a spending bill to fund the federal government for the rest of fiscal year 2011, which is already more than half way over. House Republicans passed a bill in February to cut $61 billion for the remainder of 2011 operations, a proposal that would hit a wide range of domestic programs. That bill was defeated in the Senate, along with a similar Democratic version calling for about $6 billion in trims.

The two sides have been at loggerheads ever since. Democrats have said they’re negotiating on a compromise bill that would outline $33 billion in cuts, but House Speaker John Boehner has said there’s no agreement on that number.

On Tuesday, Boehner and other GOP leaders put forward a new one-week emergency funding bill to keep the government from shutting down while the negotiations continue. But they were coy about whether they would actually bring that bill to a vote in the House.

If they do, Larson and several other Connecticut representatives said they would vote against it. A previous short-term measure passed the House in March only because of Democratic support, as many conservative Republicans said it didn’t go far enough.

The GOP’s latest proposal would fund the Department of Defense for the rest of the current fiscal year and fund other federal agencies for one more week, giving leaders seven more days to come to a longer-term agreement. It would also impose another round of cuts–$12 billion over the next week–to domestic spending programs.

The House Republican proposal, for example, would cut $2.5 billion from health and education programs, including $390 million from the Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program. It would also slice about $2 billion from transportation and housing programs, with the lion’s share coming from a $1.5 billion cut to grants for high-speed rail.

“The Republican strategy seems to be to achieve their $60 billion number one week at a time,” said Rep. Jim Himes, D-4th District. But cutting $60 billion for the rest of this year “would be job destroying, so I’m not going to play that game anymore,” Himes said. “It’s time for these guys to get serious about the whole enchilada, not this one week at a time bleeding.”

Rep. Rosa DeLauro, D-3rd District, said she would also vote against the new proposal, saying it would slash “vital investments and services needed to create jobs” and protect the middle class.

Rep. Joe Courtney, D-2nd District, said he was “reserving judgment” on the GOP’s new short-term bill until he’s examined the proposed cuts in detail. “But it just seems kind of foolish” to fund the Defense Department for a full year and the rest of the government for one week, Courtney said. “It’s just such a patently illogical approach.”

He and others said they’ve started fielding questions from constituents about the implications of a government shutdown.

Himes said he is giving the 17 mayors and first selectmen in his district “my best view of what this could mean… They will get calls on Social Security and whether their son in Afghanistan will be supplied, so we’re trying to give them a sense of what this could mean.”

Courtney said that at a roundtable with veterans in Norwich on Monday, the prospect of a government shutdown “was the number one topic of conversation.” He said the veterans asked whether they would still get their benefit checks and whether hospitals and clinics would still be open if the government shuts down.

The answer is murky right now. Veterans’ benefits paid out on a monthly basis, for example, would not be immediately affected. But other services, such as new applications for benefits, might be delayed. A clearer picture will not emerge until the various federal agencies release their individual shutdown plans.

“A lot of members are worrying–‘What do we have to do? How do we inform our constituents? What happens to our own employees?’,” Larson said. He’s planning to hold a meeting for the Democratic Caucus later this week to help answer some of those questions.

In the meantime, the negotiations between the president, House Republicans, and Senate Democrats promised to continue, albeit in fits and starts.