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Published: Thursday, October 3, 2013, 3:55 p.m.

A little lifeboat for a big ship

WASHINGTON -- Democratic lawmakers and liberal activists arranged 20 child-size chairs on the lawn outside the Capitol on Wednesday to represent 19,000 children who could lose access to Head Start because of the government shutdown -- on top of the 57,000 slots lost in the low-income preschool program because of budget cuts.
Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee of Texas held up one of the blue plastic chairs. "Here is the empty chair of the next astronaut," she said. "Here is the empty chair of a captain in the United States military."
The seats will remain unfilled. Poor kids didn't make the cut.
On the second day of the shutdown, House Republicans continued what might be called the lifeboat strategy: deciding which government functions are worth saving. In: veterans, the troops and tourist attractions. Out: poor children, pregnant women and just about every government function that regulates business or requires people to pay taxes.
The lifeboat strategy was the brainchild of Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas, the freshman who has become the de facto leader of congressional Republicans in the shutdown. On Tuesday, GOP House members introduced bills that would exempt three entities: the national parks, the Department of Veterans Affairs and the District of Columbia. On Wednesday, they added the National Institutes of Health and pay for National Guard members and military reservists.
Here are some of the functions not boarding the GOP lifeboats: market regulation, chemical spill investigations, antitrust enforcement, worksite immigration checks, workplace safety inspections, the Environmental Protection Agency, the Internal Revenue Service's audit capabilities, communications and trade regulation, nutrition for 9 million children and pregnant women, flu monitoring and other functions of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and housing rental assistance for the poor.
The pattern, it seems, is that House Republicans propose to rescue the most visible casualties of the shutdown, such as the national parks and trash collection in the capital. Efforts to help veterans, active-duty troops and reservists are popular but largely unnecessary because most of them were unaffected by the shutdown. The NIH's work isn't always visible, but the agency has powerful supporters who want research on their pet causes.
Perhaps more revealing were those who haven't earned a place in the conservatives' lifeboat: entities that check the power of industry and entities that protect workers and the poor. They may be the most hurt by a government shutdown, but they don't have a place in the conservative utopia as defined by the lifeboat strategy.
The utopia remains just that, because the proposals have little chance of getting past the Democratic-controlled Senate and even less chance of surviving President Obama's veto. The point, rather, is to make Democrats take politically damaging votes against popular programs to deflect some of the blame Republicans are getting for the shutdown.
As a result, neither side is taking the proposals very seriously, as demonstrated by Wednesday's meeting of the House Rules Committee, which debates legislation before it goes to the House floor. The lawmakers bickered about disagreements old and new but dealt little with the Republicans' lifeboat legislation.
"Not since my children were 3 or 4 years old have I seen such obstinate inability to accept the facts," declared Rep. Louise Slaughter of New York, the panel's ranking Democrat.
"A tiny and irresponsible faction is holding things up," argued Rep. Rob Bishop, R-Utah. "The tiny and irresponsible faction called Harry Reid."
"Will the gentleman yield?" Slaughter asked Bishop at one point.
"When you get me a rhubarb pie, I will yield to you," Bishop replied.
Not all were so playful. Reps. Jim McGovern, D-Mass., and Jack Kingston, R-Ga., engaged in a debate covering, among other things, the national debt, Obama's golf outing, the Senate schedule, John F. Kennedy, Iraq, Afghanistan, the Congressional Budget Office, health care and the meaning of compromise.
"Do not hold the American people hostage!" McGovern shouted.
"If my friend will yield, we gave the Senate three options to keep the government open," Kingston answered.
"What you did was trickery!"
"You tried to blackmail the president!"
"Blackmail the president?"
"Yeah, basically, I'm shutting the government down unless you dismantle your health care ... "
Kingston went on to say that while Obama "is proudly negotiating with the Iranians, he will not negotiate with the Republicans."
Lost in all this was any real discussion of the topic of the day. And that's because the lifeboat legislative strategy isn't a serious solution to the shutdown. But it is a revealing glimpse into how the world would look if Cruz's conservatives ran it.

Dana Milbank is a Washington Post columnist.

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