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
Alex Rogers
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Alex Rogers
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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