After narrowly avoiding a federal default, the Republican-controlled House and Democrat-led Senate are now on a spending collision course that could result in a government shutdown this year and automatic spending cuts in early 2025 with serious consequences for the Pentagon and a range of domestic programs.
Far-right Republicans whose votes will be needed to keep government funded are calling for cuts that go much deeper than President Biden and President Kevin McCarthy agreed in the bipartisan compromise reached last month to suspend the debt ceiling, but such reductions are all but certain not to be starters in the Senate.
The looming deadlock threatens to further complicate a process that would already prove extraordinarily difficult, as the leaders of Congress attempt for the first time in years to pass individual spending bills to fund all parts of government in an orderly manner and avoid the usual year-end bump. If they can’t, under the terms of the debt limit deal, spending cuts will take effect across the board in 2025, a worst-case scenario that lawmakers on both sides want to avoid.
The clashes began this week as House embezzlers began considering their spending bills and, working to appease their ultraconservative wing, said they intended to fund federal agencies below the levels Biden and McCarthy agreed to.
Democrats objected, saying the move would devastate the economy and well-functioning government.
« I fully intend to follow the dictates of what we’ve passed in the Senate and in the House and what the president has signed off on, » said Senator Patty Murray, a Democrat from Washington and chair of the Appropriations Committee. « I’m putting them in their own mess box, » she said of House Republicans.
The approach was particularly ill-advised, he added, given that many of the right-wing lawmakers aimed to appease reflexive voting against government spending bills anyway.
“I don’t think the country wants us here; they don’t want chaos,” Ms Murray said. « They don’t want a small minority of people dictating where our economy will go. »
Facing a rebellion by far-right Republicans over the debt limit deal, McCarthy and his leadership team blindsided Democrats this week by pegging 12 annual spending bills at 2022 levels, about $119 billion in less than the $1.59 trillion allowed in the deal to raise the debt ceiling.
The lower spending levels, called for by Freedom Caucus members who shut down the House last week to register their wrath over the debt-limit agreement, were pushed Thursday by the Appropriations Committee on a party vote after hours of acrimony during which Democrats accused Republicans of backing down on the compromise.
« The ink is barely dry on the bipartisan budget deal, yet we are here to consider the Republican majority spending agenda that completely reneges on the compromises reached less than two weeks ago, » said Rep. Rosa DeLauro of Connecticut, the top Democrat for Appropriations Committee.
Rep. Kay Granger, a Texas Republican and chair of the committee, said using a lower number would allow the House to « refocus government spending in line with Republican priorities. » McCarthy said he views the spending caps set out in the deal as merely a ceiling and that the House wants to push spending down.
« There’s no limit to how low you could go, » he said, saying Republicans wanted to show the public that they could « be more efficient in government, that we can save the hard-working taxpayer more, that we can eliminate more trash than Washington .”
But divergent approaches on both sides of the Capitol by the two parties will surely make passing spending bills extremely difficult. Failure to pass and reconcile the House and Senate bills by Oct. 1 could lead to government shutdown. And if individual bills are not passed by the end of the year, an automatic 1 percent cut would take effect that defense hawks say would be devastating for the Pentagon and US support for Ukraine’s military.
Given the options, spending account managers in both houses say they need to move forward.
« From my point of view, in the Senate we just have to move forward, » said Sen. Susan Collins of Maine, a senior Republican on the Appropriations Committee. « I hope the House finds a way to reach a consensus. »
The four leaders of the appropriations committees, who for the first time are all women, have said from the outset they want to bring the 12 spending bills to the floor in « regular order » and avoid what has become an annual ritual in which congressional leaders gather in their suites to wrap up a last-minute deal that bundles hundreds of billions of dollars of spending into one take-it-or-leave-it package.
As part of the debt limit agreement, Senator Chuck Schumer, Democrat of New York and Majority Leader, and Senator Mitch McConnell, Republican of Kentucky and Minority Leader, issued a statement pledging to « seek and facilitate minimal scrutiny » of spending accounts.
In recent years, leaders have avoided squabbling over spending bills because they are time-consuming and can force lawmakers to take politically charged votes. But the practice has left many lawmakers complaining they’ve been barred from the most basic function of Congress, and committee heads say they want to end it.
“What most of us are trying to avoid is a giant year-end omnibus that shuts out many grassroots members from having input,” Ms. Collins said. « It would be healthy for the Senate dynamic, good for our country, and better for federal programs and agencies if we got our jobs done on time. »
At present, completing spending accounts on a recently missed schedule looms as a difficult target to achieve with the House and Senate disagreeing since the expanded spending accounts review began. But those responsible say they cannot give up.
« If we all said, ‘Oh, there’s nothing we can do, there could be a potential train wreck,’ then why are we here? » asked Mrs. Murray. « My job is to get my bills done, do everything I can to get our bills through the Senate. »
The current turbulence, he said, could dissipate as the deadlines for the action approach.
« I wouldn’t take the temperature of where we will be in three months today, » Ms Murray cautioned. « We have a long way to go. »