Momentum drags for fiscal deal

Congress plans to buy itself some more time next week to sort out its ongoing spending battle, but lawmakers have made little progress on the major issues stumping negotiators.

White House-led talks have borne little public fruit, and rather than moving toward a compromise on fiscal 2011 appropriations, some lawmakers seem to be hardening their positions.

So House GOP leaders have again pulled together a package of relatively non-controversial cuts in a continuing resolution (CR) that would fund the government through April 8. The current CR (PL 112-4) expires March 18.

The measure (H J Res 48), which would cut $6 billion, meets Republican demands for spending reductions. But there are early signs of discontent among conservative House Republicans, who want to make bigger cuts and tackle major policy changes as part of any fiscal 2011 spending deal, including blocking money to carry out the health care law (PL 111-148, PL 111-152).

President Obama warned Republicans against using “the budget as a way to promote a political or ideological agenda,” and he said Senate Democrats would vigorously defend any direct assault on the health care law.

“These aren’t really budget items; these are political statements,” Obama said.

What I think is interesting about the above statement is just the opposite of what Obama is saying – Democrats (and many Republicans) have used fiscal promises to obtain voters. To me, THAT is a political statement. The only political statement we are making by this budget debate is one that we can’t just hand out money to wheover and that our government needs to operate under a balanced budget just like you and me.

The simmering fight over those kinds of policy changes could threaten the behind-the-scenes negotiations on a longer-term bill to fund the government through September.

House Appropriations Chairman Harold Rogers, R-Ky., said he expects the latest CR to be passed Tuesday, but he would not predict what would happen to a future fiscal 2011 bill if it included more controversial provisions.

“One step at a time,” Rogers said.

A House-passed bill (HR 1) would clip about $58 billion out of the current federal bankroll, a number rejected by Democrats. So far, neither side has suggested any serious effort to bridge that gap.

Many House Republicans had hoped that the coming stopgap would block funding for the health care overhaul and Planned Parenthood, among other policy changes.

Those provisions were left on the cutting room floor despite a plea from Republicans Steve King of Iowa and Michele Bachmann of Minnesota to “leverage” the CR as a “must-pass” bill and force the health policy provisions through.

The exclusion of those provisions could cause some Republicans to vote against this short-term CR, according to Jim Jordan, R-Ohio, chairman of the conservative Republican Study Committee.

“We’re evaluating this one,” Jordan said.

Majority Leader Eric Cantor, R-Va., seemed confident late last week that the three-week measure would pass. Even if some Republicans defect, Democrats are likely to support this measure as they did the current CR.

Three conservative groups — Heritage Action, the Family Research Council and Club for Growth — on March 11 said they opposed the latest round of stopgap funding. They urged lawmakers to push to complete fiscal 2011 appropriations, and to do so with the controversial policy provisions included.

“The time to bring our fiscal house in order is now, and defunding organizations that work against the principles of a majority of Americans needs to be done to show that this Congress is serious,” said Tony Perkins, president of the Family Research Council.

It would be difficult for Senate Democrats to reject the package of cuts put together by House appropriators. Almost of a third of the $6 billion in reductions comes from the rescission of $1.74 billion in unused money provided for the 2010 census, which is now complete.

The measure also realizes $2.6 billion in savings by eliminating money for fiscal 2010 earmarks that were continued in the five previous continuing resolutions. The rest of the savings comes from reducing or eliminating programs already targeted by Senate Democrats or Obama.

For example, the measure would cut a $43 million program intended to help steelmakers obtain loans. It has not had a new client since 2003, and both President George W. Bush and Obama had asked Congress to withdraw funds from it.

Outside of political pressure to stick with their agenda, lawmakers in both parties have argued that short bursts of stopgap funding make the federal government less efficient.

Republican Sens. John McCain of Arizona and Susan Collins of Maine have pushed for moving a separate Pentagon spending bill. Members in both parties have said that the budget delays place special strain on the Defense Department.

Obama agreed. “We’ve got a war in Afghanistan going on. We’ve got a wide range of issues facing the country on a day-to-day basis,” he said March 11. “The notion that we can’t get resolved last year’s budget in a sensible way with serious but prudent spending cuts, I think, defies common sense.”

Still, Obama also defended several programs, such as Pell grants for low-income college students, which have been targeted by House Republicans.

Sorting out those differences probably will take several rounds of serious negotiations in which both parties will have to swallow compromises they do not love. If not, they run the risk of shutting down the government.

“I’ve communicated directly to [House Speaker John A. Boehner, R-Ohio] as well as to [Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky.] that we want to work with them to get to a sustainable discretionary budget,” Obama said. “But we’re going to make sure that we hold the line when it comes to some critical programs that are either going to help us out-educate, out-innovate or out-build other countries.”

Kerry Young writes for CQ.

Original here.


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