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Even by the standards of today’s Capitol, where doing important business at or after the last possible moment is the default setting, an exceptionally long and disparate roster of battles and deadlines lies ahead this fall.
Far from conceding they’ll be strategically paralyzed by the welter of polarizing conflict, however, senior Republicans increasingly boast how the situation after Labor Day creates an ideal venue for a big accomplishment by Christmas.
This may prove to be only the naive optimism inherent in the onset of an especially long August recess. But the party that won control of Congress a year ago — with a promise to end the era of shutdown showmanship and fiscal cliff-walking — insists it’s got an escape hatch in the corner it’s been painting itself into all year. Full story
The end of the fiscal year is still a dozen weeks in the future, but already a shutdown showdown looks inevitable. For circumstantial evidence, look no further than the floor schedules for this month. None of the 12 annual spending bills will get a shot at passing the Senate, while the House will give up on the appropriations calendar with four measures in limbo.
But those who work on Capitol Hill can breathe much more easily than many. They, at least, already have a strong measure of certainty about the coming year. Bills setting the budgets for running Congress and its satellite agencies in the coming year have already been endorsed, in remarkably similar form, by the entire House and the Senate Appropriations Committee.
When tracking this year’s inevitable budget crisis, which is showing every early sign of climaxing 16 weeks from now in another shutdown showdown, the Hill community may want to keep Metro in mind.
Even the most seasoned members, staffers, lobbyists and reporters tend to have their eyes glaze over when confronted with appropriations numbers expressed in the multiples of billions and adding up to more than a trillion — so much of it for weapons systems, farm programs, school aid, medical research, prison construction and the like that’s way removed from their own lives.
Four years after lawmakers gave up earmarking, the last of the billions once dedicated to pet projects has effectively been spent, and one result is a changed roster of states laying claim to the most clout in Congress.
Talking smack about which delegations pack the biggest punch, and which ones are relative weaklings, has been a Hill pastime for ages. For the past 25 years, Roll Call has contributed to the conversation by making quantifiable measurements of every state’s potential sway near the star of each new Congress.
Senators readying their patience, their reading material and even their bladders for the annual ritual known as the “vote-a-rama” may rightfully be getting ready to ask, “Will it be worth it?”
The answer, predictably, depends on who’s posing the question. A look back over the past decade reveals a divide that countermands the conventional wisdom. For those wishing to make life miserable in the next elections for their Senate colleagues across the aisle, the answer is a version of, “Not so much.” For those hoping to uncover hidden pockets of legislative momentum, the answer is, “Sometimes.” Full story
The odds have crested the 50-50 threshold for what would surely become one of the year’s biggest legislative achievements — an overhaul of how doctors and other Medicare providers get paid. And the usual encrusted ideological positioning, at both ends of the political spectrum, is no longer the biggest obstacle.
Instead, what’s standing in the way is a springtime functionality gap between the Capitol’s two wings. Full story
If budget resolutions are aspirational, sketching the big picture Congress envisions for government, then spending bills are the polar opposite: Blueprints that lawmakers micromanage down to the smallest line item.
As arguments began over budgetary targets measured in multiples of billions, another annual ritual climaxed elsewhere on the Hill last week: Appropriations subcommittees were picking nits measured in the low-end millions (sometimes less) at 30 different hearings. A dozen more are planned before spring recess starts at the end of this week.
The annual budget resolution has several purposes. In theory, it’s a mission statement on the proper role of government and a mirror on priorities for the coming decade. At a more practical level, it decides the limit on lawmaker-driven spending for the coming year and smoothes the path toward ambitious changes in federal policy.
And at times when one side controls all of Congress, the fiscal blueprint provides something particularly important: It’s the year’s clearest test of the governing competence of the party in power.
In divided government, it’s nothing special for a presidential budget to be immediately dismissed as dead on arrival in Congress. It’s much rarer for the president himself to whack an important piece of his budget a full week before delivery.
President Barack Obama’s swift killing of a proposal to effectively eliminate the college savings accounts known as 529s is instructive about this year’s legislative dynamic because it connects two emerging story lines: The efforts by both parties to be perceived as doing the most for the middle class and the drive toward the biggest overhaul of the tax code in a generation.
Maybe if it was called “the gridlock slayer” instead of “budget reconciliation,” more people in the Capitol’s orbit would be getting excited about the revival of a form of legislative magic that hasn’t been practiced in almost five years.
One of the biggest congressional stories of 2015 is going to be how the Republicans, in total control for the first time in eight years, conjure many of their boldest and fondest policymaking desires into a single legislative punch and then whisk the huge behemoth past Democratic senators stripped of their normal filibuster powers. The only potential mystery is whether they’ll end up watching helplessly as the entire conservative fireball gets vaporized with a few swooshes of President Barack Obama’s pen.
That’s because the sorcery of reconciliation, while very powerful, has an even more forceful antidote: the veto.
For those who’ve arrived on the Hill since the last midterms — after swearing-in day on Jan. 6, that will include at least 44 senators and about 48 percent of the House — a very short course in the recently moribund budget process may be helpful as a starting point. Full story
Even before the government started shutting down, one year ago Tuesday night, it seemed a sure bet that throughout the coming campaign congressional Republicans would be made to rue the political consequences of their showdown strategy.
Ample evidence to support that theory cropped up all over the country by the middle of October, a barrage of attack ads that started airing right after the GOP sued for peace and normal federal operations resumed.
But, five weeks before Election Day, that budget standoff has all but vanished as a polarizing issue. Democrats — once giddy at the prospect of riding a wave of voter antagonism toward the Republicans for pushing their confrontational approach so far — are now counting on an almost entirely different set of issues and arguments to drive their base to the polls and hold off gains by the other side. Full story
This week notwithstanding, this summer on the Hill has been less sticky than usual. But it’s shaping up to be as somnolent as ever.
The days leading up to the August recess are by custom dedicated to some of the year’s defining and politically consequential matters: A deal holding down student loan interest rates last year, showdown votes on taxes and drought relief in 2012, the last minute averting of government default in 2011, and confirmations of Supreme Court justices the two previous summers.
This time, no climatic or dramatic get-out-of-town roll call is in the offing. There won’t be a quick fix for the child migrant crisis, and there’s only an outside chance for a deal to patch up the veterans’ medical care system. Congress will agree to keep highway construction funds flowing for just nine months, but that’s just a classic can-kicking maneuver.
The election year void was supposed to be filled with clamorous debates on appropriations bills, which both House and Senate leaders promised would produce some unusually timely progress for this year’s budget process. That’s not happening, and it’s not going to happen. Full story
Thursday will see this year’s most consequential vote in the once-mighty House Ways and Means Committee — to propose one of the more assertive legislative punts in recent memory.
The panel will get behind a plan for patching the gaping chasm in the Highway Trust Fund for the next 10 months, after which the fundamental fiscal flaw in the nation’s main public works program will be exposed once again. House Republicans, not worried about losing control of the chamber this fall, have concluded that’s when they stand their best chance of driving a long-term solution.
The Senate is looking at a totally different approach, one that wraps the funding problem in caution tape for only five months. The Democrats there are keenly aware they may have to turn over the keys to the GOP come January, so they view the lame-duck session as potentially their last best chance to come up with a lasting fix to a problem that’s been festering for years.
Put another way, this month’s big fight over how to sidestep the edge of the transportation funding cliff is not going to be about remaking an outdated policy. Not surprising this close to an election, political positioning is at the heart of the dispute — which only will determine which party can claim the upper hand when the real debate begins. Full story
A congressional dead man walking just days ago, Thad Cochran has instead become one of the most influential players in the coming Congress. The senator who looked to become the tea party movement’s biggest scalp of 2014 is now in position to be the small government conservatives’ worst nightmare of 2015.
Cochran’s upset runoff victory has made him a totally safe bet for a seventh term, and also increased by a small notch the prospect that he and his fellow Republicans could win control of the Senate this fall. If that happens, Cochran has not only the seniority but also the vanquished victor’s clout necessary to claim the chairmanship of the Appropriations Committee — where he would surely restore some of the spend-along-to-get-along spirit of bipartisan collegiality that drives insurgents on the right absolutely nuts.
Because the current limits on discretionary spending will be replaced by tightening sequester caps on domestic and military outlays for the remainder of the decade, Cochran would be legally powerless to break the bank during the four years he might be chairman. (He’d have to give up the gavel at the end of 2018, when he will turn 81, because the GOP has term limits and he ran Appropriations for two years in the past decade.)
What’s more, the ideological dynamics of the Senate Republican Conference would make it highly unwise and probably impossible for Cochran to achieve a restoration of the old-time appropriations culture, in which both sides are willing to give in on plenty so they might gain a little — and still get home on time. For starters, if there’s switch in party control, the GOP membership on Appropriations would expand next year. That means the dominant voices would belong to the younger generation of fiscal hard-liners, no longer the senior accommodationists such as Cochran. Full story
Appropriations is supposed to be the exception to the rule that Congress will be minimally productive this year, and the recent flurry of action on the annual money bills has made it appear that way.
Just beneath the surface, though, lies a lengthening list of disagreements over spending priorities and policy shifts. They are not only between Republicans and Democrats on the Hill, but also between Congress and the Obama administration.
Half a dozen major confrontations have surfaced just in the past week — even while progress has appeared steady.
Nine of the dozen appropriations bills have at least started down the legislative assembly line. The House is on course to pass its fifth measure this week, and Eric Cantor says moving as many as possible is his main goal before relinquishing the majority leader post at the end of July. The Senate has set the next two weeks aside for debating a package containing three of the politically easier domestic bills.
Yet no one in the know is holding out hope for answering all the myriad where-the-money-goes questions by Oct. 1, the start of the new fiscal year and also when lawmakers plan to pack up for a month of full-time campaigning. That means a continuing resolution will surely have to keep most (if not all) of the government operating at least to the middle of November, when the lame-duck session begins and Republicans know whether they’ll have more power next year.
The end result, for now, is a real sense of disconnect. One the one hand, there’s a superficial steadiness to the appropriations process, a break from many years of chaos from the start. On the other hand, there are plenty of signs that a long period of the customary messiness lies ahead.
Here are five disputes that have recently blossomed, each of which has the potential to complicate this year’s budget debate until its closing days. Full story