The surprise defeat in the House Wednesday of a special funding measure to keep the federal government functioning past Sept. 30 was a sharp rebuke of the GOP leadership that controls the chamber and a testament to the fragility of the majority itself.
The rejection of the measure resurrected the specter of a government shutdown at the end of the month and suggested that the heated confrontations that dominated Washington in the spring and early summer are likely to return this fall.
While it is widely expected that the parties will eventually reach a compromise to avoid a shutdown, Wednesday’s 230-to-195 vote showed what can happen when the GOP majority operates with no more than minimal Democratic support.
The failure of the bill was the result of a new solidarity among Democrats on funding issues and old divisions among Republicans on spending reductions.
The unexpected breakdown bodes poorly for budget negotiations between the parties. Rep. Norm Dicks (Wash.), the ranking Democrat on the Appropriations Committee, said a week ago that he planned to join with Republicans in support of the measure. Under pressure from his party to show unity, he voted no on Wednesday.
GOP leaders were unable to overcome objections from Democrats who believed the bill did not do enough for disaster victims and from conservative Republicans who wanted to use the measure to cut government spending more deeply.
To pass a bill, House leaders will have to rewrite the measure to appease either Democrats or the more conservative wing of their own party. They must send a bill to the Senate for approval before the fiscal year ends Sept. 30. Otherwise, the government will shut down.
The temporary measure is necessary because the House and Senate have failed to agree on appropriations bills to fund government for the whole fiscal year. The stopgap is designed to buy time for negotiations to continue when the fiscal year ends.
House Speaker John A. Boehner (Ohio) and other GOP leaders had been confident they could muscle the bill over to the Senate despite protests from both sides of the aisle. The loss was the latest illustration of how Boehner and his lieutenants simply do not command 218 votes — the magic number for a victory in the House — on even such basic legislative matters as a temporary funding resolution to keep government agencies functioning.
Republican leaders shrugged off the embarassing defeat as an example of their willingness to let the House work its will, something Boehner pledged to do just before he won the speaker’s gavel in November 2010.
“Change like this is hard. We’ll find a way forward so that we can reflect expectations that taxpayers have that we are going to begin to start spending their money more prudently,” House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-Va.) said afterward.
“This is the sausage factory. People who sell sausage don’t want you to see behind the doors. But with television and the media like you, the people see the real thing,” said Appropriations Committee Chairman Hal Rogers (R-Ky.), a legislative veteran of more than three decades.
Rogers said he thought Democrats would provide the difference, but once they backed off, it became clear the bill would fail.
At issue for conservative Republicans was their leadership’s decision to set spending in the bill at a rate of $1.043 trillion for the year, the level agreed to in the bitterly contested August deal to raise the nation’s debt ceiling.
But many Republicans considered the figure a cap and believed their party should push for deeper cuts at every turn. Fifty had signed a letter last week urging deeper cuts, and 48 voted against the measure.
“There has to be that moment where we say ‘no, this is not what is necessary, and we’re going to have to work for something better,’ ” said Rep. Trent Franks (R-Ariz.), who opposed the bill.
All but six Democrats, meanwhile, opposed the bill because it offset $1.5 billion of $3.65 billion in disaster relief funding with a cut to a program that lends money to automakers to encourage the production of energy-efficient cars.
They believed the program created jobs and that the Federal Emergency Management Agency, strained by repeated natural disasters, needs more funding. Ten Republicans joined Democrats in the Senate last week to approve a separate bill to spend $6.9 billion on disaster relief efforts over the course of the year.
FEMA’s disaster relief fund, which reimburses local governments and individuals for repairing storm damage, is running low after a number of tornadoes, fires and major storms. The White House has said the fund needs $500 million immediately and will need $4.6 billion for the 2012 fiscal year.
“That is an absolute bottom line,” said Sen. Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) “We’re not going to negotiate something in July and let people renege in September.”