WASHINGTON — The repeal of Obamacare may be taking up most of the oxygen in Congress for now, but two other big battles are on the horizon.
Battle lines already forming as Congress gets ready to take on the task of passing spending legislation to keep the government open and raising the national debt ceiling.
Deadlines for both are fast approaching.
The new fiscal year begins Oct. 1, yet neither the House nor the Senate has passed any of the 12 spending bills that are needed to keep the federal government running.
Budgets for the various federal agencies are divided among those 12 bills, so each receives special scrutiny from congressional committees before it is passed by Congress.
But it has been more than a decade since Congress has adhered to the regular budgeting process, forcing lawmakers to cobble together comprehensive stop-gap spending bills like that one approved in May that covered the remainder of the current fiscal year.
The House will attempt to show it is making some progress next week, when it is scheduled to vote on a package of four security-related appropriations bills. The other eight spending measures have cleared the House Appropriations Committee, yet no vote for them has been scheduled on the House floor.
In the Senate, which has been stymied much of the summer over health care,three spending bills have been passed out of the Senate Appropriations Committee but have yet to be considered by the full chamber.
(The appropriations bills are not to be confused with the budget resolution that was approved by the House Budget Committee on Wednesday. That bill is nonbinding but provides an outline for spending and taxes.)
Even if the two chambers were to pass spending measures, additional time will be needed for the House and Senate to resolve the differences between their bills, approve the final products and send them along to the president for his signature.
“We’ve got a train wreck coming,” Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., fumed recently on the Senate floor.
Congress is scheduled to begin its summer recess next month, yet “we’ve got the debt limit, we’ve got no appropriations bill passed,” McCain said, pounding the lectern with his fist. “All of these things are piling up, and we’ve got about 30 days to do it in, and so far I have seen no plan, no plan to address these challenges.”
What’s more, Republicans are looking to tackle a major overhaul of the federal tax code — a complicated, time-consuming task that threatens to further divide the GOP and could complicate efforts to pass appropriations legislation and raise the debt ceiling.
Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin is urging Congress to raise the national debt ceiling before it goes on summer break so that the government can continue to pay its bills and avoid a potentially devastating economic crisis.
The debt limit is the legal amount the Treasury can borrow to pay the government’s bills, including Social Security and Medicare benefits, military salaries, tax refunds, interest on the national debt, and other obligations.
The current debt limit of $19.8 trillion was seton March 16, but lawmakers gave the government no borrowing authority to surpass it.
Exactly when the government will run out of money is unclear, but the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office has projected the Treasury would run out of cash in early to mid-October.
Mnuchin said recently the government has enough money to get through September without raising the ceiling. Yet many congressional Republicans are reluctant to raise the limit unless it is accompanied by spending or regulatory reforms.
“We’re going to see an increase in the debt limit — we have to,” predicted Marc Goldwein, head of policy and senior vice president for the non-partisan, non-profit Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget.
It’s doubtful, however, that Congress will pass all 12 of the spending bills before the close of the current fiscal year on Sept. 30, Goldwein said.
More than likely, he said, Congress will pass a resolution extending current spending levels to the end of the calendar year to buy more time for negotiations. It’s no way to budget, Goldwein said, but it has become common practice in Congress.
The last time all 12 spending bills were passed by the Sept. 30 deadline was in 1995.
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