Here’s What’s Happening After the Debt Ceiling: Nothing

Members of the House of Representatives and others leave the Capitol Building after a vote on Capitol Hill October 16, 2013 in Washington, DC.
National Journal
Billy House and Michael Catalini
Billy House Michael Catalini
Feb. 11, 2014, 5:01 p.m.

The debt-ceil­ing bill passed by the House Tues­day, un­burdened by ad­di­tion­al Re­pub­lic­an policy de­mands, ap­pears headed for ap­prov­al in the Sen­ate, which would mark an end to ma­jor fisc­al fights for the rest of the year.

With the debt lim­it raised, a budget passed, and the funds ap­pro­pri­ated, Con­gress will have largely cleared its decks — though for what is still un­clear.

As law­makers head in­to Pres­id­ents Day re­cess, they have few big-tick­et le­gis­lat­ive as­pir­a­tions this year, only a few ac­com­plish­ments, and plenty of time to cam­paign.

“That’s what our lead­er­ship said — if we get past this one, we’re done un­til the elec­tion,” said Rep. Tim Huel­skamp, a Kan­sas Re­pub­lic­an. In­deed, for a col­lec­tion of law­makers who already have been cri­ti­cized as one of the least pro­duct­ive in his­tory, there seems to be little ur­gency to turn that no­tion around.

“We spent two years do­ing noth­ing,” said Rep. Louise Slaughter, the rank­ing Demo­crat on the House Rules Com­mit­tee, adding, “I don’t see a change of pace here. Lots of time off and noth­ing done.”

One House Demo­crat­ic aide was even more blunt in as­sess­ing the com­ing months: “The rest is filler.”

Of course, there’s something on every­one’s list. Sen­ate Demo­crats will pur­sue a host of is­sues, in­clud­ing a min­im­um-wage in­crease and an ex­ten­sion of fed­er­al un­em­ploy­ment in­sur­ance. House Ma­jor­ity Lead­er Eric Can­tor said earli­er this month that House Re­pub­lic­ans will fi­nally ad­vance a GOP al­tern­at­ive to the Af­ford­able Care Act. But the odds against those be­com­ing law are long, and Sen­ate Ma­jor­ity Lead­er Harry Re­id was hard-pressed to name oth­er bills that are likely to pass this year. “There aren’t a lot,” he said.

Law­makers still will have to ap­prove an­oth­er round of spend­ing bills for the 2015 fisc­al year. But wheth­er they do, and wheth­er those will be full-scale budget pro­pos­als or mes­saging tools, re­mains to be seen. Either way, it won’t be the heavy lift­ing seen in years past. The bi­par­tis­an budget deal has already set the level of gov­ern­ment spend­ing, which is one of the ma­jor flash points.

The rest is small-ball stuff: tax ex­tenders, an en­ergy-ef­fi­ciency bill, and ad­dress­ing how the gov­ern­ment pays doc­tors un­der Medi­care. That has some say­ing this is the true kick­off to cam­paign sea­son.

House Demo­crats now head to their an­nu­al policy re­treat for the rest of the week, and the full House will not re­turn to Wash­ing­ton un­til Feb. 25.

Then, the cal­en­dar brings a St. Patrick’s Day break in March, a two-week East­er and Pas­sov­er break in April, and yet more weeks off in May, June, and Ju­ly. Dur­ing the sum­mer, law­makers will be back in their dis­tricts the en­tire month of Au­gust and half of Septem­ber. And in the fall, they will work just two days in Wash­ing­ton dur­ing Oc­to­ber be­fore head­ing in­to Novem­ber’s elec­tion.

Of course, some law­makers are loath to cede that the Cap­it­ol will turn solely to the midterms, at least right away. “My folks at home don’t care about Novem­ber,” Huel­skamp said. “They want solu­tions.”

Demo­crat­ic Sen. Maria Can­t­well of Wash­ing­ton said it’s too early to view everything through the elect­or­al lens, not­ing that com­mit­tee work con­tin­ues. She re­called a Fin­ance Com­mit­tee bill to ad­dress tax ex­tenders that law­makers craf­ted dur­ing an elec­tion year. The bill got delayed un­til after Novem­ber, but when mem­bers re­turned, much of the work had been done, she said.

“We need to not check out and start act­ing like the elec­tion is to­mor­row,” said Sen. Mar­tin Hein­rich, a New Mex­ico Demo­crat. “We’ve got a job to do. We need to be think­ing about how to get things done even in a chal­len­ging en­vir­on­ment.”

And part of that is fin­ish­ing the debt-ceil­ing bill. There’s still a chance for some drama in the Sen­ate, with Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas say­ing he will force Re­id to get the 60 votes needed to cut off de­bate, a pro­ced­ur­al move that likely would re­quire five Re­pub­lic­ans to cross the aisle to vote with Demo­crats.

The move sug­gests there is some di­vi­sion among Re­pub­lic­ans. But sev­er­al GOP sen­at­ors said they ex­pect that Re­pub­lic­ans will not block the bill.

Rather, with the House passing a clean bill on the debt lim­it — which only months ago was heresy among con­ser­vat­ives — some GOP law­makers are ced­ing a plain fact that Demo­crats have rel­ished point­ing out: They must win in the fall if they want to cut spend­ing.

“I think if the re­cog­ni­tion is that the Demo­crats simply will en­act no ad­di­tion­al fisc­al dis­cip­line, let’s re­cog­nize that real­ity, agree not to fili­buster, and say go ahead, pass an in­crease,” said Re­pub­lic­an Sen. Ron John­son of Wis­con­sin. “We can re­vis­it this after the 2014 elec­tion.”

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