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Government Shutdown Looms in the Fall

All of Washington’s attention might be focused on the debt ceiling debate, but even if Congress averts a catastrophic default by Aug. 2, another partisan brawl over a government shutdown could be just around the corner.

In fact, Members of Congress say they are already bracing for it.

“I think we very well could [have another standoff] in September because we probably have half a dozen appropriations bills that are not going to get passed” before the Sept. 30 end of the fiscal year, House Appropriations Committee member Jim Moran (D-Va.) said.

Rep. Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.), another Appropriations member, said he also expects to be at loggerheads with Democrats over fiscal 2012 spending come the end of September. He blamed Senate Democrats for delaying the process. “We’ve been there every year,” Flake said.

Rep. Rich Nugent (R-Fla.), a tea-party-backed freshman, said he, too, believes there will be a fight over spending in September.

“Around here, I would expect it,” said Nugent, who also pinned the blame on the Senate.

The delay in action on the fiscal 2012 spending bills is due, in part, to the increasingly intense focus on the debt ceiling debate.

In April, the GOP-led House approved its budget resolution, which included a $30 billion cut from last year’s level. But the Senate, where Democrats have the majority, put off pursuing a budget resolution — as well as work on spending bills — in hopes of getting the top-line spending limit in the deal to raise the debt ceiling. Failure to address fiscal 2012 spending in the debt deal will leave a cloud of uncertainty over the appropriations process for the year.

“That may very well resolve it,” Moran said. “If we get reasonable … allocations [in the debt ceiling package], then that may mean we would not have that kind of crisis at the end of September.”

Of course, even if House GOP leaders and Senate Democratic leaders can agree on a spending limit for 2012 appropriations, the stark differences between the parties and chambers could still make individual bills, or even an omnibus measure, difficult to pass.

A showdown over 2012 appropriations would mark the third time this year that Congress has endangered funding for the government over partisan disputes on spending levels. Besides the brinksmanship on the debt limit, House and Senate leaders narrowly avoided a government shutdown earlier this year.

Before the eleventh-hour deal on spending in mid-April, Congress passed seven short-term extensions to keep the government funded while negotiations continued.

Senate Appropriations Chairman Daniel Inouye (D-Hawaii) said he is hopeful an agreement can be reached on fiscal 2012 spending levels and a funding fracas can be avoided.

“I am certain the Members of the Congress have enough sense,” Inouye said Friday. Inouye’s answer is indicative of his wish not to revisit the turmoil in Congress that consumed Members for much of the first half of this year.

With the August recess almost here, differences in fiscal 2012 spending are now starting to come to a head. Democrats charge that allocations for the House spending bills are inadequate to meet the nation’s needs.

On the House Interior and environment appropriations bill, for example, Dicks said $27.47 billion is not enough.

“The allocation that the Republican leadership gave this bill was exceedingly low. That’s the root of the problem,” House Appropriations ranking member Norm Dicks (D-Wash.) said Monday. “It contains the lowest level of spending in the Land and Water Conservation Fund in more than 40 years.”

But Republicans contend that spending needs to be curbed significantly to rein in the deficit and put the nation on a more fiscally sustainable path.

To date, the House has passed six of the 12 annual appropriations bills, and House GOP leaders hope to get the Interior and environment appropriations bill through the chamber this week. The Senate has passed only one spending measure, the military construction and Veterans Affairs appropriations bill.

Still, Congressional leaders and the White House are heatedly negotiating a deficit reduction package that would win enough support in Congress to raise the debt ceiling by Aug. 2, when the Treasury Department has said the nation is expected to begin to run out of money.

The sticking point on the deficit package has been taxes, though the levels of future spending also are at stake. But currently, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) and Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) are pursuing divergent bills. Reid said a Democratic plan to boost the debt limit includes discretionary funding figures for both fiscal 2012 and 2013.

“I am assuming [the debt ceiling deal] would affect [the fiscal 2012] money. … So at some point in time, we would have to reallocate either the pluses or minuses, and that will take some time,” House Appropriations Chairman Hal Rogers (R-Ky.) said last week.

He said the negotiations are “occupying everyone’s attention and have knocked us off of our schedule.”

But Rep. Mike Simpson (R-Idaho) said he was optimistic that a spending fight could be avoided by a deal on the debt limit or through talks with his Senate counterparts.

“We may have a difficult time, but we will resolve it,” Simpson said.

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