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Republicans May Have Trouble Getting Continuing Resolution for Budget Passed

Stan Collender, one of Washington’s major budget guru, reports that even getting the basic business of Congress done by pre-election deadlines could prove impossible. The basic issue here is that the current budget runs out on September 30. Given the election year, nobody expects a new budget deal by that deadline. However, to keep the basic functions of government running, Congress will need to pass a continuing resolution to push the budget past the election. Collender thinks even a six-week CR, to push into the lame duck session, will be a challenge:

Until very recently that date wasn’t considered to be much of an issue. The thinking was that, after the way the GOP took it on the chin politically after the 1995 and 1996 shutdowns and after the drop in Congress’ approval rating after last year’s fight over raising the debt ceiling, House Republicans wouldn’t dare prevent a continuing resolution from being adopted just a month before the elections. They might huff and puff, but blowing the House down and in the process reminding voters only weeks before they go to the polls how unhappy they were last August wasn’t thought of as an especially smart — and, therefore, likely — strategy.

That prevailing opinion has begun to change as the political realities of the CR fight become clearer. In particular, there are growing doubts about the House GOP leadership’s ability to control the situation.

The issue concerns the level of spending. Democrats want to create a continuing resolution at the level of the spending cap (around $1.047 trillion) agreed to in the debt limit deal of 2011. But conservative Republicans have consistently demanded spending below that cap, arguing that it represented a ceiling for spending, not a floor. They passed a budget resolution earlier this year that added up to $1.028 trillion in domestic spending, and conservatives even found that unacceptable. In addition, the House budget included reconciliation instructions that delayed for one year the defense cuts from the trigger, mostly by firing federal workers and cutting their pay. Heck, Dick Cheney slithered back to The Hill to brief Republicans on the defense trigger cuts. This will be positioned as a non-negotiable item.

Would it be possible for John Boehner to cobble together a coalition of Republicans and Democrats to get the CR across the line before October? Theoretically, but Democrats may be unwilling to bail out their counterparts before an election like that, especially if Boehner’s tenure as the House Speaker would be threatened as a result. Moreover, it’s unclear Boehner would even offer that. Throughout his tenure, he has proven more willing to curry favor internally in his party than reach deals across the aisle. He’s following the iron law of institutions, catering to the base first and foremost.

What’s more, this doesn’t go away with no agreement. This would mean millions of furloughs right before the election, and after that, in a lame duck session already bursting with consequential votes on fiscal policy, figuring out a budget for FY2013 would have to get thrown into the mix.

This is one case where uncertainty could really have a dampening impact on the economy, in addition to the other factors.

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David Dayen

David Dayen