Don’t look now, but the clock is running out on Congress.
Precious few days remain in the legislative calendar to accomplish critical chores facing lawmakers: namely, pass a budget, approve spending bills to keep the government from shutting down, and raise the debt ceiling or risk default.
In fact, both the Senate and House are in session just 17 days between now and Oct. 1, when the next fiscal year starts.
Congress – back just briefly from its July 4th holiday break – will soon depart for its August recess. Lawmakers will then work a truncated schedule during the Jewish High Holidays of early September. On the line during these vacations is a budget and, oh – the full faith and credit of the United States.
“If we don’t get something done before August, we will have just three weeks to scramble to put together a deal, pass it into law before the fiscal year ends on Oct. 1, and avoid a government shutdown,” said Senate Budget Committee Chairwoman Patty Murray (D-WA).
Congress has given itself an endless slew of extensions to fix problems of its own creation. Capitol Hill is supposed to pass a dozen appropriations bills each year as part of the budgetary process to fund the government, something Congress has only managed to achieve four times in the past 38 years.
Instead, the government has relied on continuing resolutions, a dependence that’s become an addiction. The current CR – passed on March 27 – —expires at the end of September. The House so far has cleared only three of 12 appropriations bills for next year, while the Senate has approved none.
“This has been the way we have been operating for a couple of years now, and it’s a disaster,” said Sen. Pat Toomey (R-PA), a prominent fiscal conservative. “It’s a terrible way to run a government.”
Both the Senate and House passed budget blueprints back in March. But House Republicans haverefused to reconcile the competing measures, since the Senate proposes another tax hike on wealthier Americans. The Senate is stuck this week confirming the executive nominees of President Obama, while forging a retroactive deal on student loan interest rates that doubled on July 1.
For now, the two chambers also remain light years apart on appropriation bills for the nation’s military, government services and federal bureaucracy. And they have yet to determine whether to let the deep, automatic cuts in defense and domestic spending known as sequestration continue for another year.
Meanwhile, Treasury officials who exhausted the government’s $16 trillion-plus borrowing authority in mid-May are using “extraordinary” financial maneuvers to keep creditors at bay. This strategy should hold out through the autumn, at which point President Obama and Congress will have to lift the debt ceiling.
TRYING TO SCORE POLITICAL POINTS
House and Senate leaders have strongly signaled their agendas for the foreseeable future. Much of that entails debate and votes on “message legislation,” which enables the two parties to score political points, even if bills do not become laws.
Having rejected the Senate-passed immigration reform package that includes a pathway to citizenship for 11 million illegal immigrants, the House will vote on reinforcing arrests of illegal immigrants as well as a series of border security measures.
On Wednesday, the House debated and passed two bills that would delay two important parts of President Obama’s health care reform program. The votes to postpone a requirement for a year that larger businesses offer health insurance to their workers – something the White House ordered a week ago – and to delay a requirement that uninsured Americans purchase coverage, marked the 38th and 39th effort by House Republicans to derail Obamacare since early 2011.
“This is a game,” complained House Democratic Whip Steny Hoyer (MD). “This is political messaging. Nothing more, nothing less.”
There will be plenty more of these shenanigans before Congress takes off for its month-long vacation.
In the House, that will mean more skirmishes over Obamacare, immigration reform and food stamps, which were not included in the farm bill. House Financial Services Committee Chairman Jeb Hensarling (R-TX) plans to move a bill that largely dissolves the government protections on mortgages, another piece of message legislation Democrats oppose.
At the same time, House Republicans are still digging into the IRS scandal, trying to prove the White House somehow ordered the agency to target conservative groups seeking tax exemptions for special scrutiny. So far, House Oversight and Government Committee chairman Darrell Issa (R-CA) hasn’t made the case, while Democrats say some progressive groups came in for similar scrutiny.
Senate appropriators have been reluctant to move ahead too quickly with their own set of spending bills until there is more clarity about the 2014 budget. Senate Appropriations Committee chairwoman Barbara Miklulski (D-MD) is scheduled to bring the first spending bill to the floor next week – a measure to fund transportation and housing programs. Mikulski, Murray, Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV) and Senate Majority Whip Richard Durbin (IL) yesterday called on Republicans again to agree to a budget conference to pass the fiscal 2014 appropriations bills and cancel round two of sequestration.
“We’ve got to get to work now and forge that fierce sense of urgency,” Mikulski said.
The House and Senate are about $170 billion apart in overall spending goals, with the House calling for $3.53 trillion in discretionary and mandatory spending, and the Senate asking for $3.7 trillion.
While waiting for a compromise, the Senate Democratic leadership this week moved ahead with confirmation votes on important administration nominations, after Republicans and Democrats reached an agreement Tuesday that averted all-out-warfare over the filibuster rule. The Senate will also continue work on a new student loan compromise, as well as an energy efficiency bill.
A few Senate Republicans who broke ranks to support the deal said that forging a similar alliance to adopt a budget or raise the debt ceiling this fall would be a lot harder.
“Those who are attempting to argue all of a sudden there’s this big philosophical breakthrough are missing the point,” Sen. Mike Johanns of Nebraska, one of 17 Republicans who joined Democrats to end debate Tuesday on the first of Obama’s nominees, told The Wall Street Journal. “There’s a big, philosophical difference” still remaining between the two parties over the role of government and how to fund it.
But Sen. John McCain (R-AZ), who worked with Democrats to broker the deal on the filibuster and Obama nominations, says he is confident the Senate will take up a defense authorization bill this year and break the impasse over the budget and a new debt ceiling before the deadline. He believes there will be more opportunities for bipartisanship, in the wake of the deal that averted a crisis over the filibuster rule and passage of the Senate’s bipartisan immigration reform bill.
“Let’s hope,” McCain said. “I’m the eternal optimist.”