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CR Timeline Gives Appropriators a ‘Jingle Bells’ Endgame

Mikulski, center, and Durbin pushed the strategy of shortening the length of the stopgap CR. (Douglas Graham/CQ Roll Call)
Mikulski, center, and Durbin pushed the strategy of shortening the length of the stopgap CR. (Douglas Graham/CQ Roll Call)

Wednesday’s anticlimactic vote on the continuing resolution — Ted Cruz’s pretzel-logic faux filibuster notwithstanding — isn’t the most important Senate move so far this week in the budget endgame.

That distinction belongs to the Democratic leadership decision to apply a much smaller patch to the broken spending machinery than what House Republicans united behind last week. The continuing resolution the Senate will pass, likely on Saturday, would keep the government operating for only the next seven weeks — until Nov. 15, exactly a month earlier than the date in the House bill.

The change, which will get ample GOP buy-in, will alter the rhythm of this fall’s multifaceted fiscal deliberations in several ways.

It means the second possibility for a partial government shutdown will come close on the heels of a potentially market-rattling showdown over the debt limit. It means appropriators will gain an opening to reassert a measure of relevance they haven’t enjoyed at the Capitol in nearly a decade. And it could mean still one more bite at the apple for conservative Republicans crusading to stop or slow Obamacare.

What it does not mean, however, is that the new target adjournment date for the first session of the 113th Congress is two Fridays before Thanksgiving. There’s bipartisan consensus that such an early departure is both legislatively unrealistic and politically unwise and that, even if an unexpected wave of functionality and deal-making appears, a second CR will be necessary to maintain running-in-place operations into December. (In the past decade, the earliest Congress has finished its work in a non-election year was Dec. 8, 2003.)

Once top Democrats became totally confident they had the votes to restore spending in the CR to implement the 2010 health care law, they decided that shortening the length of the stopgap would be to their tactical advantage as well. If discretionary spending is extended for only 45 days at the annualized rate of $986 billion — the amount dictated by the sequester — the senators believe they can persuade House Republicans into opening serious negotiations on a comprehensive appropriations package that would govern most of fiscal 2014.

The strategy was pushed by Sens. Barbara A. Mikulski of Maryland, the Appropriations Committee chairwoman, and Richard J. Durbin of Illinois, who is both Democratic whip and this year’s new chairman of the Defense Appropriations Subcommittee, which has jurisdiction over more discretionary spending than any other panel. For them, as for most fellow Democrats, the ideal goal is persuading Republicans to abandon the sequester within the next two months and allow overall appropriations to increase 7 percent, or $72 billion, for the new year.

(House Democrats on the fence about a CR that keeps the sequester alive may now be willing to vote “yes,” on the grounds they’ll get another chance to try to turn up the spending spigot sooner than they expected. For the opposite reason, conservative House Republicans facing disappointment at Obamacare spending being restored may look to the CR’s shortened timetable as a consolation prize — if only because it opens a window for tightening the spending spigot down to their $967 billion goal and creates another opportunity to eviscerate the health care program to boot.)

A bit more realistically, Democrats see an opening — perhaps with the help of some GOP operators — to push up the grand total by only a few billion dollars, accommodating defense and domestic priorities that enjoy the broadest bipartisan support.

Even if the Democrats’ first choice and backup goals are thwarted, however, assembling an omnibus would still yield some benefits for appropriators on both sides. It would permit them to raise or lower allocations to agencies and programs, and to shape policies at the margins, in ways the across-the-board nature of a sequester CR don’t permit.

And it would therefore restore some measure of regular order to an appropriations process that’s almost completely broken down. Only six stand-alone spending bills have been enacted in the previous six years, all but one after the new fiscal year began.

Mikulski, Durbin and their allies argued that if the initial CR lasted 75 days, budget-battle exhaustion would lead to Congress adopting the path of least resistance two Sundays before Christmas: extending existing levels well into the new calendar year, maybe even for the rest of the fiscal year that will end a month shy of the midterm elections.

The original Dec. 15 date was chosen by House GOP leaders to put some distance between the climactic appropriations fight and the expected legislative contortions over the borrowing limit. Since the Treasury now estimates the debt ceiling will have to be raised above $16.7 trillion before Nov. 8, the new CR date puts the debt ceiling and spending deadlines as little as a week apart.

Advocates of the shift see that proximity working to smooth the spending debate, assuming lawmakers will be eager to be perceived as restoring some normalcy to the budget process so soon after the anticipated brinkmanship on the debt.

Alternatively — and only a bit more cynically — Democrats may have decided it’s in their best political interest to give Republicans as many opportunities as possible to worry Wall Street and antagonize independent voters with their budgetary strategies.

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