The Good News is Congress Just Agreed…

Just this afternoon, the Washington Post ran a story on their web site titled “Senate Moves to Extend Jobless Benefits.”  Most readers would surmise that the chamber had in fact voted to extend the emergency legislation that provided unemployment benefits beyond the traditional 26 weeks to the 1.3 million Americans whose payments were cut off at the end of December.

In fact, the Senate voted only to pass the cloture motion that allows the Senate to proceed to full debate on the measure.  But even the vote to impose cloture, in which 6 Republicans sided with 54 Democrats was a huge surprise.  Prior to the vote, Heritage Action stated that it would “key” the cloture vote, which poses a risk to Republican lawmakers who are facing, or fear facing primary challengers from the right.

In any case, passage of the unemployment extension is far from a done deal.  Several Republicans who supported the cloture motion have already indicated they’ll not vote for the $6.5 billion legislation unless the Senate also agrees on a way to pay for it, which remains a significant hurdle. Not to mention the fact that the bill would still need to pass in the Republican controlled House, which is a considerably heavier lift than the Senate.

In a similar vein, on December 10 a Washington Post headline read: “House, Senate Negotiators Reach Budget Deal”, with the story explaining that the so-called Ryan-Murray agreement would “fund federal agencies through the fall of 2015, averting another government shutdown and ending the cycle of crisis that has paralyzed Washington for much of the past three years.”

The deal, however, doesn’t fund the government through the fall of 2015, or even through the fall of 2014.  Rather, it amends the continuing resolution to fund the government through January 15, and more importantly provides a framework for funding the government for the remainder of FY 14, and for FY15.  The agreement was a significant accomplishment, and ended the 16-day government shutdown.  It also provides top-line discretionary spending numbers (302(a) allocations) for two fiscal years, which under regular order would be set in congressional budget resolutions, which we haven’t had in five years, and would cancel about half of the sequester.

Most significantly, the deal set the stage for Congress to pass the FY14 appropriations bills, or at least an omnibus version of the appropriations bills.  But Congress still has to pass something to fund the government beyond January 15, or we face another shutdown.  Appropriations staff met throughout the holidays, and House and Senate Appropriations Chairs Harold Rogers and Barbara Mikulski are meeting for the first time today, and we may know more later today regarding the outlook for the 12 bills.

Yesterday, Senator Mikulski stated to the press that staff had worked out four of the bills – Milcon-VA, Transportation-HUD, Commerce-Justice-Science, and Leg Branch – but that there were significant challenges with three of the remaining eight: Labor-HHS-Education, Interior-Environment, and Defense.  Labor-H, which funds portions of the Affordable Care Act, as well as a host of anti-poverty programs, and Interior-Environment, which funds EPA, are both perennial battlegrounds between liberals and conservatives.  Defense is usually a relatively easy lift, but this year negotiators need to identify tens of billions of dollars in cuts below both chamber’s budget resolutions in order to bring the bill under the agreed-to number in the bipartisan budget agreement.

With only a week remaining before the January 15 deadline, it’s difficult to see how the sides can agree to an omnibus that will fund all 12 appropriations bills.  I think the most likely scenario is an omnibus that funds at least four and as many as eight of the bills, along with a short-term CR to fund the remaining bills.  I can’t imagine another government shutdown; but then again, I didn’t imagine one in October either.