The Next Budget Crisis Is Only 90 Days Away

US Rep. Paul Ryan,R-WI, walks to a meeting at the Capitol Hill in Washington, DC, on October 16, 2013. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid said Wednesday that a deal had been reached with Republican leaders to end a fiscal impasse that has threatened the United States with default. Reid, speaking from the Senate floor, said the agreement called for reopening the federal government with a temporary budget until January 15 and to extend US borrowing authority until February 7. 
National Journal
Shane Goldmacher
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Shane Goldmacher
Oct. 16, 2013, 7:55 p.m.

Be­fore the ink was even dry on the plan to end the gov­ern­ment shut­down and avoid bust­ing the na­tion’s debt lim­it, there were grow­ing doubts that Con­gress could avoid an­oth­er fisc­al show­down in only 90 days.

The pack­age to re­open the gov­ern­ment runs only through mid-Janu­ary, and law­makers have pinned hopes to avert a re­peat per­form­ance on a new bi­par­tis­an, bicam­er­al con­fer­ence com­mit­tee. The last sim­il­ar pan­el, the so-called su­per com­mit­tee of 2011, dead­locked and ad­journed in dis­agree­ment.

The new pan­el, to be led by House Budget Com­mit­tee Chair­man Paul Ry­an, R-Wis., and Sen­ate Budget Com­mit­tee Chair­wo­man Patty Mur­ray, D-Wash., will be­gin its talks amid a pois­on­ous and par­tis­an at­mo­sphere after the first gov­ern­ment shut­down in 17 years.

If the policy gulf between the two parties was not chal­len­ging enough, law­makers on both sides of the aisle are ques­tion­ing wheth­er any­one — even Ry­an, the most re­spec­ted voice on fisc­al mat­ters among House Re­pub­lic­ans — can truly rep­res­ent a frac­tious con­fer­ence that pushed a gov­ern­ment shut­down against its lead­er­ship’s wishes and then re­jec­ted its own speak­er’s pro­pos­al to re­open the gov­ern­ment.

“We’re un­gov­ern­able,” Rep. Charles Bous­tany, R-La., a seni­or mem­ber of the Ways and Means Com­mit­tee, said Wed­nes­day. “There is no doubt in my mind that the last three weeks have made any­thing achiev­able in the House more dif­fi­cult.”

For the con­fer­ence com­mit­tee to suc­ceed, both parties must trust that the oth­er is ne­go­ti­at­ing in good faith and can sell a com­prom­ise-laced pack­age to their re­spect­ive caucuses. It’s not clear any­one cur­rently has that abil­ity when it comes to the rest­ive House Re­pub­lic­ans.

“That’s a le­git­im­ate con­cern based upon re­cent his­tory,” said Sen. Robert Ca­sey, a mod­er­ate Pennsylvania Demo­crat. “Not much we can do about that oth­er than have them dis­prove it.”

Bous­tany agreed that the chal­lenge will be es­pe­cially acute for House GOP con­fer­ees. “Any time a con­fer­ence com­mit­tee con­venes to try to solve some of these prob­lems — wheth­er it’s a farm bill, or a de­fi­cit-re­duc­tion pack­age, or any­thing — if you can’t rely on the fact that the rank-and-file mem­bers have your back and will go along with it then that makes it im­possible to gov­ern,” he said. “And that’s largely where we are today, and it’s not a good place to be.”

In pub­lic on Wed­nes­day, top law­makers tried to sound a pos­it­ive note, even as lead­er­ship aides in both parties, and on both ends of the Cap­it­ol, were skep­tic­al.

“You have two very good ne­go­ti­at­ors who are far apart in their views, but both wish to de­fang the worst parts of se­quest­ra­tion,” Sen. Chuck Schu­mer, D-N.Y., said. “Hope springs etern­al.”

Two main as­sump­tions un­der­pin those Demo­crat­ic hopes. The first is that Re­pub­lic­ans, wounded polit­ic­ally in the cur­rent shut­down bout, will not want to re­hash an­oth­er gov­ern­ment-shut­down battle in only 90 days. The second is that GOP hawks will come to the table to dis­cuss un­wind­ing the auto­mat­ic cuts in place due to se­quest­ra­tion be­cause the de­fense sec­tor will take a big­ger share of cut­backs in 2014 than it did in 2013.

Both as­sump­tions could prove false. Demo­crats have con­sist­ently over­es­tim­ated the cur­rent, tea-party-in­fused Re­pub­lic­an Party’s will­ing­ness to ne­go­ti­ate away se­quest­ra­tion be­cause of de­fense spend­ing. And plenty of House Re­pub­lic­ans, even amid plum­met­ing poll num­bers, did not sound ready to give up the fight.

“The battle is over,” Rep. Aus­tin Scott, a Geor­gia Re­pub­lic­an elec­ted in the 2010 wave, said on Wed­nes­day, “but the war has just be­gun.”

Law­makers are already busy de­fin­ing down suc­cess for the budget con­fer­ence com­mit­tee. Al­most no one is dis­cuss­ing the kind of “grand bar­gain” — a mix­ture of rev­en­ues sought by Demo­crats and en­ti­tle­ment cut­backs sought by Re­pub­lic­ans — that has proved elu­sive between Pres­id­ent Obama and con­gres­sion­al Re­pub­lic­ans for al­most three years.

House Speak­er John Boehner said Wed­nes­day that “rais­ing taxes is not a vi­able op­tion,” while Minor­ity Lead­er Nancy Pelosi ruled out any changes to Medi­care and So­cial Se­cur­ity without fresh rev­en­ues. “Why should granny pay the price when we won’t even touch one hair on the head of the wealthy in the coun­try?” she said on MSB­NC.

In­stead, dis­cus­sions for the con­fer­ence com­mit­tee are around simply keep­ing the gov­ern­ment open through Septem­ber 2014, the rest of the cur­rent fisc­al year. Sen. Ben Cardin, D-Md., called that a “reas­on­able ex­pect­a­tion.”

“I would ac­know­ledge that the in­siders here prob­ably have low ex­pect­a­tions,” he said, “so let’s ex­ceed it.”

Ben Terris contributed to this article.
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