With Washington facing the possibility of a second government shutdown, Republican and Democratic negotiators are racing to reach a budget agreement before Congress adjourns for Christmas.
The parties have been here before. But this time, members on both sides appear motivated to avoid what would be the second shuttering of the federal government since October, say House and Senate negotiators. Congress has until Jan. 15 to strike a deal, although lawmakers could pass a stopgap measure to extend the bargaining period, a plan that is under consideration.
Rep. Tom Cole said the 16-day October shutdown taught Republicans the political perils of instigating a similar stalemate, while the troubled Obamacare rollout has probably chastened Democrats as well. The fact that both sides are stinging, the Oklahoma Republican said, sets the current negotiations apart from previous bargaining sessions.
“I think both sides really need a deal this time,” Cole, a budget negotiator, said Tuesday. “I think politically, each side has had a difficult six or eight weeks for different reasons. We did over the shutdown. They’re having their problems with ... the Affordable [Care] Act.”
The government closed in October after House Republicans insisted that Obamacare be defunded in a budget deal. Democrats, however, got a political boost from the closing and that had some speculating that Democratic lawmakers would quietly welcome another shutdown in January. Any edge Democrats gained from the shutdown, however, has since been lost to continuing troubles with the rollout of President Obama's signature health care law.
“Democrats do not support a shutdown in any form,” said Rep. Chris Van Hollen, of Maryland, the top Democrat on the House Budget Committee who is among the current budget negotiators. “I hope that’s true on the Republican side.”
Still, optimism that negotiators will reach a budget compromise before Jan. 15, when the current temporary funding bill expires, is muted as House Republicans and Senate Democrats spar over the familiar issues of spending levels and tax hikes.
The GOP wants a budget that maintains the sequester-driven budget cuts and keeps spending for the year to $967 billion. Democrats want to avoid those cuts by increasing revenue. They now also are considering pushing for a one-year extension of unemployment benefits for the long-term jobless, which would cost another $26 billion. Republicans oppose the extension.
House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan, R-Wis., and Senate Budget Committee Chairwoman Patty Murray, D-Wash., were set to resume budget talks this week so that congressional staff can work out the details over the holidays. If a deal isn't reached before lawmakers leave town Dec. 13, House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, may move to approve another short-term, temporary budget deal that would avoid a shutdown and give negotiators more time.
The short-term budget would fund the government at sequester levels for 60 to 90 days while negotiations on a long-term deal continue. House Republicans believe they have the votes to pass the short-term budget even if Democrats unanimously rejected it — another sign that the GOP is uninterested in shutting down the government again. It's unclear whether Senate Democrats would accept another short-term deal.
“I think the House should act” on a short-term measure, said Oklahoma Rep. James Lankford, the GOP Policy Committee chairman. “The more that we can act early, the better it is.”
Any compromise on spending levels is expected to put federal spending at about $1 trillion next year. The crucial hurdle, though, is resolving what to do about the across-the-board spending cuts that would take effect in January unless lawmakers can agree on how to offset them.
Republican defense hawks in the House are trying to prevent the sequester cuts from hitting the Pentagon hard. Democrats are pushing for tax increases to avoid cuts to all federal agencies.
Republicans familiar with the Ryan-Murray talks say it's unlikely that negotiators would strike a deal before January, which would mean a short-term spending bill would be needed to prevent a shutdown.
“I sense that they don’t have this thing tightly wrapped and might end up with a [short-term budget bill],” said a Republican lobbyist monitoring the budget discussions.