Countdown to Another Fiscal Fail

Congress braces for brutal choice — more sequester or another shutdown.

WASHINGTON, DC - OCTOBER 17: Members of the bipartisan budget conference (L-R) Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-AL), Rep. Paul Ryan (R-WI), Sen. Patty Murray (D-WA) and Rep. Chris Van Hollen (D-MD) discuss their initial meeting at the U.S. Capitol October 17, 2013 in Washington, DC. Congress voted last night to fund the federal budget and increase the nation's debt limit, ending a 16-day government shutdown. 
National Journal
Sarah Mimms and Tim Alberta
Add to Briefcase
Sarah Mimms and Tim Alberta
Dec. 1, 2013, midnight

Law­makers in both parties could face a dan­ger­ous polit­ic­al di­lemma after they re­turn to Wash­ing­ton: Either en­dorse a second round of dam­aging se­quester cuts or pre­pare for an­oth­er gov­ern­ment shut­down.

The situ­ation is that stark, and it’s com­ing on fast.

Budget ne­go­ti­at­ors led by House Budget Com­mit­tee Chair­man Paul Ry­an and Sen­ate Budget Com­mit­tee Chair­wo­man Patty Mur­ray are ra­cing to beat a Dec. 13 dead­line to draft a deal that would keep the gov­ern­ment open bey­ond Jan. 15.

They could get it done. Even House Speak­er John Boehner says he’s hope­ful. But oth­er law­makers and aides say the odds are not good, and that’s why House Re­pub­lic­ans are now pre­pared to pass a short-term con­tinu­ing res­ol­u­tion to fund the gov­ern­ment at the $966 bil­lion level that’s dic­tated by the Budget Con­trol Act, ush­er­ing in round two of the hated se­quester cuts.

“I think there are smarter spend­ing cuts that can re­place these crude across-the-board cuts. I’m hop­ing [Mur­ray] and I can come up with an agree­ment to do that,” Ry­an said re­cently. “But if not, the law is the law.”

The GOP strategy car­ries sig­ni­fic­ant down­side, however. Re­pub­lic­ans want the spend­ing cuts, but this next phase of se­quest­ra­tion in­cludes polit­ic­ally tricky re­duc­tions to Pentagon spend­ing — a $20 bil­lion slash that many law­makers are des­per­ate to stop.

House Re­pub­lic­ans, par­tic­u­larly, could find them­selves in a lose-lose situ­ation. They ac­know­ledge the dam­age done by Oc­to­ber’s shut­down saga and are de­term­ined to avoid a re­peat in Janu­ary, but many GOP law­makers are afraid of cut­ting the Pentagon’s fund­ing.

Enough House Re­pub­lic­ans rep­res­ent mil­it­ary-heavy dis­tricts that any vote framed as sup­port­ing fur­ther se­quest­ra­tion could be un­pre­dict­able for GOP lead­er­ship. Boehner’s team can af­ford to lose only 16 Re­pub­lic­an votes be­fore need­ing help from the oth­er side of the aisle. And giv­en the se­quester’s deep cuts to do­mest­ic pro­grams, sig­ni­fic­ant Demo­crat­ic sup­port for a con­tinu­ing res­ol­u­tion that keeps the auto­mat­ic re­duc­tions in place is un­likely.

One vo­cal GOP op­pon­ent of se­quest­ra­tion, House Ap­pro­pri­ations Com­mit­tee Chair­man Hal Ro­gers, has for months warned his col­leagues against ush­er­ing in a second round of across-the-board cuts. Ro­gers spec­u­lated last week there could be some “se­quester re­lief” in­cluded in a short-term CR, but he did not elab­or­ate on how that would hap­pen.

Mean­while, the Re­pub­lic­an lead­er­ship, while open to re­pla­cing se­quest­ra­tion, has in­creas­ingly in­dic­ated that it will move for­ward with the cuts if Ry­an and Mur­ray can­not reach an agree­ment. Both Boehner and Sen­ate Minor­ity Lead­er Mitch Mc­Con­nell have said that they will push their mem­bers to sup­port the se­quest­ra­tion cuts, ab­sent an agree­ment.

As the Dec. 13 dead­line ap­proaches with no in­dic­a­tion of a deal at hand, even some of the party’s most vo­cal op­pon­ents of se­quest­ra­tion have be­gun to soften their op­pos­i­tion.

“I don’t like it, but I can live with it,” said one Sen­ate Re­pub­lic­an law­maker, who has pre­vi­ously spoken out against the se­quester cuts and asked not to be iden­ti­fied.

Rep. Jack King­ston, R-Ga., a mem­ber of the Ap­pro­pri­ations Com­mit­tee and a vo­cal op­pon­ent of se­quest­ra­tion, said he couldn’t yet agree to a CR that would lock in those deep spend­ing cuts, par­tic­u­larly to the Pentagon.

But he, like many of his Re­pub­lic­an col­leagues, wor­ries that budget ne­go­ti­ations will con­clude on Dec. 13 without a deal. “I don’t know that they’re go­ing to get any­where,” he said.

King­ston’s pref­er­ence would be to get a budget agree­ment and pass 12 ap­pro­pri­ations bills for the re­mainder of the fisc­al year. But ab­sent a deal, King­ston said he would be open to sup­port­ing a con­tinu­ing res­ol­u­tion that locked in se­quest­ra­tion.

“We des­per­ately need to cut spend­ing,” King­ston said. “And se­quest­ra­tion is the only game in town that’s do­ing it.”¦ I would be re­luct­ant to get rid of it without oth­er, sig­ni­fic­ant, spend­ing cuts.”

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