The GOP's Two-Month Challenge

Can the majority figure out how to fund the government, pay for highways, raise the debt ceiling—oh, and elect a House speaker—in the next eight weeks?

John Boehner and Mitch McConnell
National Journal
Oct. 18, 2015, 8:01 p.m.

Congress is back in town after a brief recess. And now it faces a two-month stretch of mind-numbing challenges.  

It must avert a government-shutdown deadline of Dec. 11, raise the country's borrowing authority by Nov. 3, and fund infrastructure projects past the end of October, as well as extend a series of popular-but-expired tax breaks.

It would be a daunting schedule even before considering these complications: a House GOP without an idea who its next speaker will be or when John Boehner will resign, a House revolt vote to restore the Export-Import bank over the objections of conservatives and even some GOP leaders, precious time spent to honor Veterans Day, and a week back home to cut the Thanksgiving turkey.

So it's no surprise that senior GOP aides predict that Congress won’t be able to craft and pass a bill to fund the government in the next few weeks, and why outside budget experts have pegged the odds of a government shutdown a toss-up, concerned that raising the debt limit without concessions to the GOP on entitlements—as the White House and Democrats are reportedly fighting—will inflame the hard right on the next fight.

Still, some on K Street are confident that the sides can come together for a two-year budget deal, as the 2011 budget law known as sequestration has left Republican defense hawks and Democrats fuming.

“I’m going to tell ya, I don’t like to use the words ‘bust the caps,’” said Jim Dyer, a former top House Appropriations staffer now at the Podesta Group. “Let’s just say I’m confident the caps will be adjusted upward to reflect the realities of life in 2016 as opposed to the projections of life in 2011, when these caps were lifted out of thin air.”

How to do that is a major question. In September, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell said he was looking for a two-year budget—which would clear the decks for the next president—and that Congress will inevitably “crack” sequestration in the negotiations.

“There's a lot of pressure in Congress to spend more,” he said. “The administration certainly wants to spend more, and the president, of course, is in a key position to determine whether any of these bills, should he get them, become laws, so we'll end up in the negotiation that I just described.”

But without entitlement cuts, Republicans will be hard-pressed to go along with a significant compromise, although policy riders—including one concerning water regulations under the Environmental Protection Agency—could sweeten the deal.

Dyer, who worked in the Reagan and George H.W. Bush administrations, believes that Congress could look to “extend, modify, tweak” the offsets found in the 2013 bipartisan budget deal that provided billions in sequestration relief.

“I think the only path out the door on Dec. 11 would be a cap adjustment upwards of an unspecified number with mandatory spending cuts to offset it and something that would run two years in duration,” said Dyer. “I also expect that they might look at the Ryan-Murray offsets—which everybody bought into whether you liked them or not—and look at whether or not you could extend, modify, tweak or do anything to them to get you extra revenues.”

“That might be one painless avenue to go down,” he added. “To be able to say to your critics, ‘hey, we did this before and you didn’t mind, now why can’t we do it again?’ Nobody died. Nobody got hurt.”

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