Congress Greets Hurdle After Hurdle This Fall

Congress will return to the Capitol this week with just a handful of legislative days to piece together a short-term government funding extension before the end of the fiscal year on Sept. 30. It is only their first deadline in a fall chock-full of them.

Both chambers are dedicating their first week back to consideration of the Iran nuclear deal. Everyone will take a pause for Pope Francis’s Sept. 24 address to Congress. But otherwise, all eyes will be on the expected stopgap spending measure, known as a continuing resolution, which will buy more time for negotiating a resolution to the budget standoff that lasted through most of the spring and through the summer.

The immediate problem for Republican leaders in Congress is channeling away from the continuing resolution the outrage over a series of controversial Planned Parenthood videos. A number of conservatives in the House want a rider in the stopgap bill that would strip the organization of its federal funding. Senate Democrats and President Obama would flatly reject such a move, setting the stage for an ugly intra-GOP fight or even a government shutdown.

In a recent interview with Kentucky TV station WYMT, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) conceded that Senate Republicans wouldn’t be able to attach a Planned Parenthood rider to the continuing resolution. “We just don’t have the votes to get the outcome we’d like,” he said.

House Appropriations Committee Chairman Hal Rogers (R-Ky.) has also repeatedly said he wants a “clean” funding extension.

The prospect of attaching a Planned Parenthood rider to the continuing resolution, which is an appropriations bill, is also problematic because the organization’s federal funding largely comes from mandatory programs.

One possible solution Republican leaders are considering is attaching Planned Parenthood defunding language to a long-expected budget reconciliation bill that would also target elements of the Affordable Care Act. However, because that legislation would certainly die at the president’s desk, it’s unclear if conservative lawmakers would accept that approach.

An early indication of where House Republicans stand on the issue will likely come Wednesday, when the House Judiciary Committee is slated to hold a hearing to investigate the Planned Parenthood videos.

The length of the continuing resolution will be another crucial question since it will set the timeframe for larger budget negotiations. A host of other do-or-die issues are also in play: raising the debt ceiling; renewing a package of popular expiring tax provisions; and replenishing highway and transit accounts. The budget talks will likely touch on all those issues, if only to set priorities for floor debate or, in some instances, function as bargaining chips.

Highway authority expires Oct. 31. The debt ceiling will need to be raised sometime in November to prevent the United States from defaulting on its international obligations. The tax provisions will need to be completed before the end of the year to allow them to be incorporated in 2015 tax filings.

The budget talks will set the tempo for those items. At its simplest level, the budget disagreement between Republicans and Democrats is over war funding. Republicans in Congress wrote a budget plan that largely adheres to discretionary spending caps established by the Budget Control Act of 2011. However, the one deviation is that the GOP budget allows for nearly $40 billion to be allocated to a special war account to boost defense spending.

The White House and congressional Democrats have said they will not boost defense funding beyond the 2011 caps unless Republicans also provide dollar-for-dollar increases to domestic programs. The dispute has stopped the appropriations process because any spending bill would need Democratic votes to overcome a filibuster in the Senate.

While disagreement over federal war spending is the issue du jour, the structural roots of the budget discord are the 2011 spending limits. In previous years, agreements between the two parties have lifted those caps, allowing appropriators to fund the government at higher levels. That’s what happened in 2013 when Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) and Sen. Patty Murray (D-Wash.), then the chairs of Congress’s two budget committees, crafted a deal to lift spending limits for fiscal years 2014 and 2015.

The continuing resolution is the opening move in an autumnal chess match that could result in a replication of the Ryan-Murray effort, a goal that members on both side of the aisle say they want.

Even if lawmakers write a continuing resolution with a Ryan-Murray 2.0 on tap, Congress would still be, at the very least, several weeks away from funding fiscal year 2016, which begins on Oct. 1. The two parties would have to agree on how high to lift defense and non-defense spending caps and how to offset some or all of those spending increases. Then appropriators would have to write the actual bills that disburse those funds.

There is no guarantee that Democrats and Republicans can come to an agreement on raising spending caps. Another option, advocated in a recent Heritage Foundation paper, would be to pass a full-year continuing resolution and avoid new budget negotiations altogether.

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