Greg Nash

The federal budget is almost certain to be the central battleground between President Obama and the new Republican Congress in 2015.

The GOP has vowed to use control of the House and Senate to slash the size of government, with entitlement programs such as Medicare and Social Security a potential target for cuts.

But Obama has made clear he will use his veto pen against the GOP, forcing Republicans to tread carefully as they seek to avoid government shutdowns and recapture the White House in 2016.

Here are the dates to watch as the conflict unfolds.

February 2: Obama’s budget deadline

The president is required under the law to submit his budget proposal to Congress by the first Monday of February, which in 2015 falls on the second day of the month.

Obama has repeatedly missed the deadline during his presidency. Last year’s budget came a month late, in March, while the previous year’s was unveiled two months late in early April.

The president’s budget proposal for fiscal 2016, which begins in October, is likely to include more spending for the Pentagon than originally expected because of the new battle against the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS).

Obama administration officials have hinted that the proposed spending level for defense will bust the cap set by the Budget Control Act of 2011. If Congress doesn’t raise or remove the cap before next October, across-the-board spending cuts could take effect.

February 27: DHS funding runs out

GOP leaders will have two months to decide how to handle funding for the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) for the rest of the fiscal year. The $1.1 trillion spending bill Congress passed at the end of the lame-duck session only extended DHS funding through February and did not allow for any spending increases.

Republican leaders chose the short-term solution to satisfy conservatives who demanded action to defund Obama’s immigration actions.

Their campaign to block funding might ultimately fail. A Congressional Research Service report from the October 2013 government shutdown found that even if the government closes, immigration-related services would continue to operate.

Democrats have argued that maintaining an outdated funding level for DHS prevents the administration from implementing new programs on cybersecurity and counterterrorism.

March 15: Debt limit suspension expires

Congress in February approved a “clean” increase of the debt ceiling that authorized the Treasury Department to borrow as needed, without limit, through March 15, 2015.

That arrangement ends on March 15, when the debt limit will automatically take effect. At that point, Treasury is expected to use “extraordinary measures” to meet the government’s fiscal obligations through the late summer or even early fall.  

Incoming Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) has repeatedly promised he will not allow the U.S. to default, but GOP leaders are facing new pressure to demand spending cuts in exchange for a debt increase — something Obama and Democrats are likely to resist.

Rep. Tom Price (R-Ga.), the next chairman of the House Budget Committee, told reporters in mid-December that reviving the “Boehner Rule” might be “wise.” That rule had required “dollar-for-dollar” cuts in exchange for a debt increase.

April 1: GOP budget resolution?

Following in Rep. Paul Ryan’s (R-Wis.) footsteps as House Budget chairman, Price is likely to unveil a budget resolution in the spring that would direct appropriators to rein in federal spending.

It’s possible that Price and the budget chairman in the Senate, Mike Enzi (R-Wyo.), will release a joint proposal to keep the two chambers on the same page.

Instead of raising the sequestration budget caps for fiscal 2016, Price has said he wants to maintain those limits, but eliminate the firewall between defense and non-defense spending. Dissolving that boundary, Price said, would give Congress the flexibility to allocate more money to the military and less to domestic programs.

Obama would have to sign legislation that would destroy the firewall, and it’s unclear whether he’d take that chance, given the risk of decreased funding for social programs favored by Democrats.

If the budget resolutions pass in both chambers, lawmakers would have to go to conference and work on an agreement. The agreement could contain reconciliation instructions for relevant committees that could involve rolling back ObamaCare, tax reform or changes to energy policy.

September 30: Shutdown deadline

The government must pass legislation funding the government by Sept. 30 or the government will shut down.

McConnell and other key GOP leaders have signaled they want to return to regular order and pass individual appropriations bills rather than massive funding packages that are cobbled together in haste.

With the GOP in control, Republicans might have an easier time passing these separate spending bills in June and July. If both chambers approve those bills, Obama could either sign or veto them.

October 1: Fiscal 2016 begins

The new fiscal year begins on Oct. 1, by which point the budget brawl by Obama and the GOP may have run its course.  

If the two sides find a compromise, it’s possible they will have found a way to avoid the automatic spending cuts that could be triggered across the government under sequestration.

But if partisan conflict dominates, all bets are off.

Tags Boehner Mike Enzi Mitch McConnell Paul Ryan

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