With lawmakers focused on last-minute negotiations on a fiscal deal, most other congressional action this week is predictably taking a secondary role.
Thursday is the day Obama administration officials say the nation's borrowing authority under an existing $16.7 trillion cap will be exhausted. What a failure to lift that cap might mean for U.S. markets, the economy, and tens of billions of dollars in Social Security checks and other benefits is a subject of much uncertainty.
President Obama and legislative leaders don't want to test those waters. But even if a bargain is concluded before Thursday, the processes of putting an agreement into legislative language and getting members in both chambers to approve it will be a high-stakes race against the clock.
Accordingly, lawmakers—already slowed by the government shutdown—have scheduled an especially light load this week. Among some of the highlights:
- A Senate Small Business Committee hearing set for Tuesday on the topic "Small Business Speak: Surviving the Government Shutdown."
- A joint House Oversight and Government Reform and Natural Resources committee hearing set for Wednesday on the National Park Service's "Implementation of the Government Shutdown," and the role of politics in that decision-making process.
- The Senate Intelligence Committee will hold closed hearings on Tuesday and Thursday. No subject matter was announced.
- The Senate Aging Committee will hold a hearing Wednesday on the future of long-term-care policy.
There also could be work this week on a final version of a long-delayed farm bill, but there was no certainty. Both chambers have named their conferees. But finding a compromise on areas of sharp division among Senate and House majorities over a number of issues will be difficult.
One of the biggest gulfs involved proposed cuts to the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, known as food stamps. The Democratic-led Senate has approved $4 billion in cuts, while the GOP-led House has approved $40 billion. Even if the conferees don't meet this week, the next steps in the process will likely be discussed.
BUDGET AND FINANCE
Conference May Be Close
House and Senate Republicans are now joining Democrats in a push to set in motion a two-chamber conference on the budget for the remainder of the 2014 fiscal year, a conference that House Republicans have refused to facilitate for nearly six months.
Details for these longer-range talks could be part of any debt-ceiling deal, and Republicans foresee it as a way to get some modest changes to entitlement programs and tax reforms.
But the big first hurdle to be resolved by a conference committee is the status of the spending caps under sequestration, instituted under the 2011 Budget Control Act. Senate Democrats want to unwind sequestration and use higher spending levels. Republicans favor lower numbers that include the sequester cuts.
Examining Park Closures
National parks have become a flash point of the shutdown debate, and both chambers of Congress are taking up the case next week.
Along with the House committees' joint hearing, the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee may also explore the shutdown's effects on public lands, both in setbacks to energy operations and, as Republicans will likely make a focus, the decision to close national parks.
Kerry and Karzai Talking
In a late-breaking effort to seal a pact between Afghanistan and the United States to allow American troops to remain in the country past 2014, the deadline for the withdrawal of U.S. combat troops, Secretary of State John Kerry flew unannounced to Kabul, where he and Afghan President Hamid Karzai reached a partial deal on outstanding issues over the weekend.
This summer, Obama warned Karzai he would withdraw all U.S. troops from the country by the end of 2014 if there was no agreement by Oct. 31 on the terms for a follow-on force, and that deadline is approaching quickly. Karzai on Saturday said all issues were resolved except for immunity for U.S. troops, which he will punt to a national assembly of tribal elders to convene within a month.
Watch for announcements in the coming days.
Obama Stays Flexible
For the second week in a row, Obama's schedule is being put together day by day, allowing the White House to adjust to developments in the battle over the government shutdown and the looming crisis of the debt ceiling.
This article appears in the October 15, 2013 edition of NJ Daily.