Congress has avoided one shutdown crisis but potentially set the stage for another.
Now that lawmakers in the House of Representatives and the Senate have approved a continuing resolution to keep the government flush with cash until Dec. 11, the Obama administration and Republican and Democratic congressional leaders have launched efforts to forge a two-year budget deal in order to avoid shutdown showdowns that the nation has endured over the past few years.
There’s trouble ahead. “It’s going to be a very messy December, not a very merry Christmas,” said Robert Bixby, executive director of the Concord Coalition, a bipartisan budget watchdog group.
That quest for a big deal could lead to shutdown drama in December. That’s because congressional Democrats and the White House have insisted that any deal must include lifting the mandatory spending caps on domestic and defense spending known as sequestration.
Republicans, mainly in the House, also could foil budget talks. The forces that helped push Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, to surrender his gavel and quit Congress on Oct. 30 are objecting to his role in negotiating a deal that he won’t be around to live with.
Even before lawmakers passed Wednesday’s continuing resolution, all sides were bracing for the new budget fight. Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., indicated that Democrats won’t surrender ground on sequestration.
Senate Democrats already are playing hardball by filibustering spending bills in attempts to pressure Republicans to renegotiate lifting the budget caps that began in 2013 as part of the 2011 Budget Control Act.
“Lifting the sequester has been one of my top priorities for years,” Reid said on the Senate floor Wednesday. “I hope we can finally achieve this key Democratic goal.”
Lifting the sequester has been one of my top priorities for years.
Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid
Republicans have voiced support for lifting sequester caps as well. But while Democrats have focused their attention on lifting them for more spending, most Republicans are interested in boosting the defense budget.
“We have to,” said Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., chair of the Senate Armed Services Committee. “The outgoing chief of staff of the United States Army said that we can no longer defend the nation adequately. That should be sufficient to most members of Congress.”
Hawkish Republicans who oppose increasing domestic spending could balk at easing sequestration, knowing that they can boost the Pentagon’s budget by circumventing the mandatory spending caps.
Republicans did just that over the summer when they added $38 billion in a defense bill by directing it to the so-called Overseas Contingency Operations account, or OCO, a fund that pays for counterterrorism activities in Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria and elsewhere.
The contingency fund isn’t subject to sequester caps.
“Republicans are perfectly happy to keep the sequestration level for the non-defense spending,” Bixby said. “They can get around the defense cap through OCO.”
House Minority Whip Steny Hoyer, D-Md., said Obama and congressional Democrats intend to “go pretty hard” on sequestration in the budget talks but hedged on whether they are willing to go to the brink of a shutdown.
“So the answer to your question is, you know, we hope that doesn’t happen,” Hoyer said.
When asked about the prospect of easing sequestration, Sen. Orrin Hatch, chair of the Senate Finance Committee, said Wednesday, “I don’t think so. I think we’re going to keep them, but I don’t know.”
“We’ll have to see,” said Hatch, R-Utah. “We do have the tumult in the House that we have to deal with, which is not going to be easy.”
We do have the tumult in the House that we have to deal with, which is not going to be easy.
Senate Finance Committee Chair Orrin Hatch
Several House Republicans, like House Appropriations Committee Chairman Hal Rogers, R-Ky., have said they want to “end the meat-ax” approach of sequestration. But GOP House members who’ve railed against Boehner’s leadership might not be in a negotiating mood.
Rep. Thomas Massie, R-Ky., a Boehner critic, theorized that Wednesday’s budget vote was part of a grand plan by the current congressional Republican leadership aimed at obliterating sequestration.
“The ‘adults in the room,’ John Boehner and Mitch McConnell, are creating the next crisis today, and they’re going to have it the day before Christmas,” Massie said. “They’re using the leverage of Christmas break to compel members to vote to bust the budget caps. It’s always about sequester.”
Rep. Mick Mulvaney, R-S.C., suggested that some Republicans could challenge the legitimacy of a budget deal brokered by a lame duck Boehner.
“The man just quit. I’m not sure how much weight he continues to carry in the body,” Mulvaney, a member of the conservative House Freedom Caucus, told The Hill, a Capitol Hill publication. “Right now, he’s the least accountable that he’s ever been to anybody. And I don’t think it would be fair to take advantage of that circumstance to pass stuff that he wouldn’t have passed before his resignation.”