Spending Impasse Solidifies With Midterm Results Holding Next Move

Reid once had grand plans. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)
Reid once had grand plans. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)
Posted July 23, 2014 at 5:00am

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. No piece of stand-alone spending legislation is going to take another step forward this year on either side of the Capitol — neither on the floor nor in committee.  

For the congressional community, one practical consequence is that this year’s post-election session will potentially be as long-lasting as the previous two. (The final votes of 2010 were Dec. 22; the 2012 lame duck famously lasted until the so-called fiscal cliff was skirted on New Year’s Day 2013.)  

This year began with plenty of plausibly optimistic and bipartisan talk about a return to regular fiscal order, on the theory that the congressional decision at the end of 2013 to freeze discretionary spending at $1.014 trillion had neutralized the main issue in the standoff. But since the two sides soon enough found plenty of policies and priorities to fight over instead, the situation has steadily and now conclusively devolved to the dysfunctional default setting.  

For the fifth straight year (and seven of the past eight) not one of the dozen annual spending bills will be cleared by Congress before the nominal Oct. 1 deadline.  

The only mysteries at the moment are how much drama will attend to the production of the continuing resolution required to keep the government running, and how long that initial CR will last into the new fiscal year.  

The nearly universal consensus is that talk of a shutdown showdown will be kept to a bare minimum. Well-positioned as they now are for the congressional midterms, all but the most rabidly confrontational Republicans have concluded they’d be totally foolish to revive the hostage-taking tactics that burned them so badly last fall.  

It’s also clear the initial CR will need to last at least seven weeks. Lawmakers have been promised they can campaign full-time starting the first weekend in October. They are not due back until Nov. 12, with new-member orientation and leadership elections likely to dominate the Capitol’s attention for several days. Clearing a second CR will likely be the last order of legislative business before Congress shuts down for Thanksgiving week.  

The election results will drive what happens next. The pace at which the appropriations process has fallen apart this summer seems closely correlative to the pace at which Republicans have grown more and more bullish about their campaign for the Senate. Each time a recruiting success, fundraising period or primary outcome has boosted prospects for a GOP takeover, Republicans have slowed their walk on spending a little more.  

Look for them to bring the process to a standstill after Nov. 4 if they pick up the six or more seats necessary to make a majority in 2015. Republicans will have no incentive to cut the deals necessary to bring an end to the current budget standoff in the lame duck. Instead, they will laugh-off efforts by the Democrats to sue for peace. Rather than split the difference in the waning days of a divided Congress, it will be in the GOP’s enlightened self-interest to put the entire spending debate on hold until January, when they would be in charge of all of Congress for the first time since 2006. So the coming of a GOP Senate would guarantee government-by-CR through much of next winter.  

But if the Democrats hold the Senate, they can be counted on to propose that the second CR last only to the middle of December. And then they will push the House GOP to negotiate an omnibus appropriations package before the end of the 113th Congress.  

The starter dough is there for getting such an ambitious cake baked before Christmas. The House has passed seven bills, and Appropriations Chairman Harold Rogers, R-Ky., has pushed four more through his committee. (The laggard is Labor-HHS-Education, always among the most problematic because the GOP disdains so many of the social programs that it funds.)  

Although Senate Appropriations Chairwoman Barbara A. Mikulski, D-Md., won the promise of four weeks of floor time in June and July for her bills, she was able to use fewer than four days’ worth; the usual partisan standoff over how to handle amendments stymied a package of three of the more routine domestic measures. Still, eight other bills have won committee or at least subcommittee approval. (Interior-Environment, another favorite Republican target, is the one she’s been forced to leave behind.)  

Literally thousands of the secondary and tertiary spending and policy questions have already been settled, in other words. Only a couple dozen of the most politically dicey matters must be litigated anew. And after the election, the 30-second spots about health care, EPA regulations immigration and the like will be in the rearview mirror.  

So there’s still a chance appropriations season will end less than 12 weeks late. In these deadlocked times, that would be what accomplishment looks like.