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Congress’s October Budget Battle Could Become a US Christmas Crisis

The US Congress passed a temporary spending bill to keep the lights on in Washington, but the stopgap measure only runs until December, when the budget fights will erupt again.
October 1, 2015, 5:30pm
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (C) listens to a question from a member of the news media during a news conference following a Republican policy luncheon, on Capitol Hill in Washington DC, USA, 16 September 2015. (Michael Reynolds/EPA)

Lawmakers are already prepping for another and likely more contentious round of budget negotiations, only hours after President Barack Obama signed legislation late Wednesday to prevent an October 1 government shutdown at midnight.

The spending bill will fund the government through December 11. Around the same time this stopgap measure expires, Congress will have to consider a long-term highway bill, expiring tax breaks and raising the debt ceiling. The debt ceiling currently sits at $18.1 trillion and analysts estimate it could be breached as soon as late October. Moreover, the measure's expiration comes one week before many economists expect the central bank to raise interest rates for the first time in nearly 10 years.

"This bill hardly represents my preferred method for funding the government," Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., said Tuesday.

Negotiations now turn to setting a full-year appropriations package. Republicans also favor, and Democrats are open to, establishing the government's top-line spending levels for the next two years, as lawmakers will not be interested in facing the possibility of a government shutdown in an election year.

"We'd like to settle the top-line for both years so that next year we can have the regular appropriations process," McConnell said. "The president and Speaker Boehner and I spoke about getting started into discussions last week, and I would expect them to start very soon."

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Many Democrats favor getting a deal done before Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, steps down at the end of the month. Conventional wisdom holds that it will be easier for the Democrats to negotiate with Boehner than other more conservative GOP House members. And Boehner wants to "clean up the barn" before he exits.

"We have debt ceiling, we have Ex-Im bank which is already closed, we have, of course we've got to do something about funding the government after December 11," Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid, D-NV, said earlier this month, according to the Washington Post. "It's going to have to come very soon and I would hope that Boehner would make it easy on the people that are going to follow him and get it all done before he leaves."

The stopgap funding measure, with the support of nearly 60 percent of Republicans, passed 78 to 20 in the Senate. Where Democrats had previously blocked all short-term spending bills from coming to the floor this year because of a dispute over current spending levels.

Democrats' want sequestration — legislatively mandated budget caps — lifted for domestic programs. Some Republicans also want to lift the caps for defense spending.

In a larger budget deal, Republicans want any increases in spending to be met with equal spending cuts, particularly in areas such as Medicare. Safety net programs account for two-thirds of the budget.

The administration proposed an increase in spending by $74 billion, a 7 percent raise in the budget caps. It said additional revenue or cutting entitlements would offset this hike. Sequestration, which is scheduled to resume in 2016, would only increase spending by 0.2 percent, less than the rate of inflation.

Of the 277 House votes in favor of the short-term spending bill, only 91, or roughly 37 percent of them, were cast by Republicans.

Boehner's likely replacement, House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy, R-CA, voted in favor of the measure while McCarthy's announced opponent, Rep. Daniel Webster, R-FL, voted against it. Majority leader hopefuls Rep. Steve Scalise, R-LA, voted yes and Rep. Tom Price, R-GA, voted no. The measure also lacked full support among the whip hopefuls.

Many conservatives in the House expect its new leaders to spearhead the effort to defund Planned Parenthood — the women's health clinic that has come under fire after the recent release of videos that allegedly depicted the organization selling fetal tissue for profit — throwing another wrench into budget talks. The organization denied the accusations and Missouri's attorney general has found that Planned Parenthood did not violate the law.

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In a separate measure Wednesday, the representatives also voted on whether or not to defund Planned Parenthood. This vote garnered 241 yesses — 238 of whom were Republican. The measure is expected to stall in the upper house but could be a prescient signal of the fight that lies ahead.

Sen. Barbara Mikulski, D-MD, the ranking member on the Senate Appropriations Committee, said it would take an additional 30 days "to get the job done" after an agreement for top-line spending levels is reached.

"I challenge leadership to work with Speaker Boehner to enact a new top-line budget deal by the end of October," she said. "We can't let October brinksmanship become a Christmas crisis."

Follow Matt Yurus on Twitter: @Matt_Yurus

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