debt limit

Congressional Appropriations in Full Swing, Sort Of, As Deadlines Loom

Fiscal deadlines loom again and the congressional appropriations process is moving ahead as the House prepares to vote on 12 measures that defy Trump cuts and include spending increases. The Senate is further behind and no time line is set for a vote to raise the debt limit.

Fiscal deadlines loom again and the congressional appropriations process is moving ahead as the House prepares to vote on 12 measures that defy Trump cuts and include spending increases. The Senate is further behind and no time line is set for a vote to raise the debt limit.

As fiscal deadlines loom, the appropriations process is now in full swing – at least in the House of Representatives.

The end of the current fiscal year is rapidly approaching and lawmakers are scrambling to avoid a breakdown in the appropriations process by reaching an agreement on topline spending levels for the next two years and to raise the debt ceiling.  

House appropriators have approved all 12 annual spending bills, with House leaders aiming to pass them out of the full chamber by the end of June. As expected, House spending legislation largely rebukes the Trump Administration’s proposed cuts and instead outlines large spending increases across the federal government. 

To speed up passage, House Democrats were planning to bundle five fiscal 2020 spending bills into a massive package for floor consideration this week. However, that package lost a leg when the Legislative Branch measure was dropped after a disagreement over a provision to raise lawmaker salaries. The House began debate today on the revised four bill package that combines the fiscal 2020 measures for Defense, Labor-HHS-Education, Energy-Water, and State-Foreign Operations.

The bundling decision underscored a determination by House Democratic leaders to avoid another breakdown in the appropriations process and allow enough time for negotiations with the Senate before the new fiscal year begins October 1. Just as Republicans did last year, the strategy includes combining the two biggest annual spending bills – Defense and Labor-HHS-Education. Congress was able to get those two bills, along with three others, signed into law last year before the start of fiscal 2019. 

But the strategy is hardly a cure-all. A dispute over funding for the border wall last year brought work on other spending bills to a halt and led to the longest partial government shutdown in history. And topline funding levels finalized in the ongoing bipartisan budget negotiations are unlikely to mirror the priorities of House Democrats. 

Without a bicameral budget agreement in place yet, Senate appropriators have yet to mark up any of their spending bills for fiscal 2020. Bipartisan negotiations to set funding levels for fiscal years 2020 and 2021 have stalled primarily over disagreement on the level of domestic spending and whether new spending will be offset by new revenues or cuts elsewhere. An agreement to raise spending limits is necessary to avoid severe cuts to both defense and non-defense discretionary spending imposed by a 2011 deficit reduction law.

Senate Republican leaders met Wednesday with the White House in hopes to solidify the party’s spending strategy, but early reports suggest no agreement was reached. Part of that strategy includes deciding whether or not to couple raising the debt limit with must-pass spending legislation. The deadline to lift or suspend the debt limit is fluid, but the Treasury’s borrowing authority can likely last through October before a default.

The bottom line: A breakthrough will need to happen soon to avoid a shutdown or stopgap spending resolution come October. There are just 21 legislative days scheduled before the August recess. After which lawmakers will return to Washington with only 13 scheduled legislative days before the end of the fiscal year on September 30.

 

 

Prospects for Bipartisanship in an Election Year

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell said 2018 should be a year of bipartisan compromise, but that may be easier said than done after the GOP-controlled Congress shoved through a massive tax cut at the end of 2017 and ideological differences in the House threaten to blunt deals with Senate Democrats. [Photo Credit: AP/Susan Walsh]

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell said 2018 should be a year of bipartisan compromise, but that may be easier said than done after the GOP-controlled Congress shoved through a massive tax cut at the end of 2017 and ideological differences in the House threaten to blunt deals with Senate Democrats. [Photo Credit: AP/Susan Walsh]

Will 2018 be the year of congressional bipartisanship or a retreat to political trenches before the November general election? It is a critical question that could determine the shape of spending, immigration, pension protection, defense, foreign policy and border security legislation.

It is also a question of time as the Senate returns to work this week and the House comes back next week.

The next Waterloo date for Congress is January 19 when the current short-term spending measure expires. Reconciliation rules don’t apply, which means whatever legislation emerges must pass the 60-vote cloture hurdle in the Senate. Christmas has passed, so GOP congressional leaders can’t rely on Democratic reluctance to allow a holiday federal government shutdown.

Before the holiday break, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell signaled a need to seek bipartisan approaches in 2018. House Speaker Paul Ryan has focused more on trimming spending on so-called entitlement programs, which is unlikely to attract much bipartisan support. Congressional Democrats can be expected to weigh compromise against electoral advantage.

There is no better example of the political watershed than Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA). Democrats want a clean bill to secure their place in America and a path to citizenship. President Trump plopped the issue in the lap of Congress with a March 5 deadline as leverage to gain Democratic support for his promised border wall. Congressional Republicans may stop short of the Trump wall, but want fortified border security as part of any deal.

Trump gave Congress until March to reach a compromise. Latino interest groups expressed displeasure at Democratic failure to force the DACA issue in the pre-Christmas spending showdown, which foreshadows a more aggressive stance by Democrats in January negotiations. Conservative Republicans equate protection for children brought to America by their parents illegally as amnesty, which they have pledged to oppose.

There aren’t any obvious silver-bullet issues to inspire bipartisanship. The closest no-brainer issue is continued funding for the Children’s Health Insurance Program (CHIP). Before heading home for Christmas, Congress ponied up $3 billion to sustain CHIP for three months. Democrats want CHIP to continue while House Republicans appear to view it as a vehicle to dismantle additional parts of the Affordable Care Act.

During the holiday break, Democrats floated a new issue that could be a wrench in the works or a possible bargaining chip. On “Face the Nation,” Michigan Congresswoman Debbie Dingell and New York Congressman Joe Crowley called for government-backed private pension protection. Even though the recent run-up in the stock markets have boosted retirement accounts, Dingell and Crowley argued many Americans remains under water because of the Great Recession and pressure on private pensions continues to mount. The proposed solution involves government securitization of pension benefits, much like protection for savings accounts in banks, through some form of bonding. Democrats figure this issue would especially appeal to middle-class Americans.

Republicans, supported by Trump, want to boost military spending. The price for Democrats is increased social spending – or avoiding cuts in Medicaid. There eventually will be a deal on spending and an increase on the debt ceiling, but the deal that Senate Democrats would support may splinter the GOP majority in the House.

How forceful each side remains could depend on public reaction to the GOP-passed tax-cut legislation. Backers of the $1.5 trillion tax cut are counting on bolstered take-home pay as early as February to start changing American opinion about the legislation, which Democrats branded as heavily benefitting corporations and wealthier taxpayers.

If fatter paychecks turn heads, it may embolden Republicans. If the tax cuts seem insignificant, then Democrats may become more obstinate.

The congressional agenda is chocked full of other issues, including an extension of FISA court orders required to conduct domestic surveillance and additional disaster relief for states and territories hit hard by hurricanes, flooding and wildfires. Both offer some glimmer of hope for bipartisan cooperation.

Another possible bipartisan topic is stabilization of health insurance markets. Maine GOP Senator Susan Collins voted for tax-cut legislation on promises by here Republican colleagues to address the issue by agreeing to give insurers as much as $10.5 billion to compensate for coverage for high-cost and poor people. The conservative wing in the House has given that idea a cool reception as it warns about more spending driving up the federal deficit.

On philosophical grounds, the most likely bipartisan target is increased funding on infrastructure. Trump has promised to submit his plan to Congress this month and congressional leaders also have been working on proposals. Again, the pain point may be more spending and a higher deficit. That argument inevitably will revive the debate over the GOP-backed tax cut and whether it starts paying off in 2018.