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Budget Wars Coming to Early Showdown — and Stalemate

A routine committee meeting tomorrow will formally lock down this reality about the congressional budget engine: it has totally seized up, and as early as ever — fully 20 weeks before it’s supposed to finish spitting out thousands of line-item decisions about discretionary government spending for next year.

The majority Republicans on House Appropriations will push through the spending caps they will use in drafting the dozen bills expected of them for fiscal 2014. All the Democrats will oppose the numbers, because they completely disregard one of the central tenets of the too-tough-to-swallow sequester that Congress swallowed anyway this year: The spending cuts are supposed to be as severe for defense programs as they are for domestic operations.

Instead, the House will set about drafting three measures — for the departments of Defense, Homeland Security and Veterans Affairs (which also includes military construction) — that in the aggregate would cut spending by less than 1 percent from current levels.

But to hold those national security efforts harmless, while still keeping all their decisions under an overall cap of $967 billion, the GOP appropriators are assigning shriveled-up bottom lines to the other nine bills devoted to domestic spending and foreign aid. They would face cuts of $72 billion, or 17 percent, from current levels. Almost half of the reduction, or $35 billion, would come from imposing a 22 percent cut on the social programs that Democrats are most interested in preserving at the departments of Labor, Education and Health and Human Services.

Appropriations Chairman Harold Rogers, R-Ky., has absolutely no expectation that depth of domestic cuts will be realized. Instead, his proposed grand totals for the spending bills — known in Hill shorthand as the 302(b) allocations — are obviously his opening bargaining position for the inevitable negotiations at the end of the year with Senate Democrats and the Obama administration.

The numbers are also a signal of how House GOP leaders will seek to leverage that bargaining position this summer: They will push the three national security bills through the House along with Rogers’ favorite domestic measure, for the Agriculture Department. And then their side will stand pat, knowing the rest of the bills have little chance of passing the House.

Rogers’ hope is that, by fall, some sort of deficit-reduction deal might be engineered that does away with the sequester, allows the level of national security spending the GOP insists on and also allows him to ameliorate the non-starter cuts he’s now got penciled in for domestic programs.

At the head of the other side of the bargaining table is Senate Appropriations Chairwoman Barbara A. Mikulski, D-Md., who is preparing to unveil her initial bargaining posture in two weeks, right after the Memorial Day recess. It’s a very safe bet that she will do the opposite of what Rogers did, holding the social programs harmless and calling for defense budgets to take the most significant hits.

The one top-line fact she’s made clear is that her 302(b) allocations will add up to $1.06 trillion. That’s $91 billion, or 9 percent, more than the House bottom line, because Mikulski and the Senate Democratic leadership’s bargaining starts with the assumption that the sequester will be canceled by the fall, with or without a taxes and entitlements budget deal that promises an equivalent amount of deficit reduction.

And, with that as her opening posture, it’s very tough to see how she’ll get any of her bills passed by the Senate, or even through the theoretical filibusters that will surely be mounted by GOP budget hawks.

In other words, a flurry of activity on the spending front in the next month seems guaranteed to produce a long summer and early fall with no overt progress at all. And it’s inevitable that a continuing resolution, or a series of them, will be needed to keep the government open and running in place long past the new fiscal year’s start on Oct. 1.

Another patchwork resolution between Thanksgiving and Christmas is by far the best bet.

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