WASHINGTON – With a new speaker in the House and a major budget-and-debt deal completed, lawmakers hope they are entering a welcome period of calm – even boredom – on Capitol Hill.
“I hope it means that there will be more bipartisan cooperation,” said Sen. Bob Casey, D-Pa., “that we won’t have the brinksmanship, and the cliffs, and the drama, and the uncertainty.”
But some things haven’t changed.
The three dozen or so conservative hard-liners in the House who pushed out former Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, haven’t gone anywhere. Even though most of them ended up supporting newly elected Speaker Paul Ryan, R-Wis., they served notice that they will be watching closely to make sure he delivers on promises of a more inclusive legislative process.
And the budget-and-debt deal approved by Congress this past week does not take all fiscal clashes off the table. It raises the government’s borrowing limit through March of 2017, forestalling a market-rupturing default in early November and putting off future debt ceiling debates until there’s a new president. It also sets federal budget levels for 2016 and 2017, committing lawmakers to bottom-line spending levels for the next two years.
But members of Congress still must fill in the details for each of those budget years, and they have until Dec. 11 to pass a package of spending bills for 2016.
It’s an exercise that’s ripe for conflict.
Any number of policy fights could flare on the must-pass legislation, including renewed demands from conservatives to strip money for Planned Parenthood. That’s the issue that precipitated Boehner’s resignation when hard-liners rebelled because he didn’t push the fight to the point of possible government shutdown. It could threaten a shutdown again.
As the Feb. 1 presidential caucuses in Iowa approach, the 2016 candidates in the Senate, including Ted Cruz of Texas, Rand Paul of Kentucky and Marco Rubio of Florida, could seize on the spending debate to stage fights on one issue or another. But Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., eager to hang onto his slim majority and protect vulnerable GOP senators up for re-election in politically divided states such as New Hampshire and Illinois, is not interested in any more conflict.
Majority Republicans are trying to play down the possibility of unrest around the spending process, given that the bottom-line numbers have been set and policy fights are a regular feature of negotiations on spending bills. “It is the chairman’s expectation that we will have funding legislation that can pass the House and Senate and be signed into law,” said Jennifer Hing, spokeswoman for Rep. Hal Rogers, R-Ky., chairman of the House Appropriations Committee.
Democrats, who say they tried but failed to get a deal limiting the policy add-ons as part of the budget agreement just agreed to, are more wary.
“We are not out of the woods,” said Rep. Nita Lowey of New York, top Democrat on the Appropriations Committee. “We still need to enact a $1.1 trillion spending package including hundreds of controversial funding and policy issues. It will be a heavy lift and we need to be up to the task.”
President Barack Obama warned Congress on Friday about “getting sidetracked by ideological provisions that have no place in America’s budget process.”
Other business awaiting congressional action includes completing a multiyear transportation bill, which may include a provision reviving the federal Export-Import Bank, an agency that makes loans to help foreign customers buy U.S. goods. The bank, opposed by conservatives, was allowed to expire this year.
A defense policy bill initially vetoed by Obama in a now-resolved dispute over spending levels is likely to be reworked, and the Senate will attempt to get a repeal of Obama’s health care law to his desk. Other odds and ends are pending, including extending a variety of expiring tax breaks.
All in all, notwithstanding the possibility for conflict on spending, it could be a relatively tame agenda compared with the drama of recent months on Capitol Hill. And that’s just fine with many lawmakers.
“America is ready for a Congress that gets things done,” said McConnell’s spokesman, Don Stewart. “Even if that’s boring.”
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