Cruel September looms for GOP

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For Republicans, September is shaping up to be a month of bitter pills.

It appears increasingly likely to GOP lawmakers that they will be asked to vote for two things they hate at the end of the month.

The first is a continuing resolution that would keep the government open and funded at current spending levels.

{mosads}It is likely to be tied to the second: a bill to raise the debt ceiling, another measure anathema to congressional conservatives.

“I think we’re in for a long fall,” White House director of legislative affairs Marc Short said at an Americans for Prosperity event Monday night.

Congress faces a Sept. 30 deadline to prevent a government shutdown, while Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin, somewhat conveniently, has set a Sept. 29 deadline for raising the nation’s borrowing limit.

Mnuchin says the hike should be “clean,” meaning it should not be tied to spending cuts or reforms demanded by conservatives.

To get the bill through the Senate, Republicans will need support from Democrats, giving the minority leverage.

Republicans loath funding the government with a continuing resolution because it blocks or postpones a slew of their priorities, including funds for President Trump’s border wall, significant increases in military spending and cuts to nondefense discretionary spending.  

“We’d be against a continuing resolution because that wouldn’t allow us to fund those priorities,” White House budget director Mick Mulvaney said in June.

Republicans could avoid the continuing resolution by reaching a deal on a broader spending bill, but that would also require Democratic support in the Senate, and time is running out.

So far, the House has only managed to approve four spending bills. The Senate has not approved any, and most have not even made it out of committee.

This means the continuing resolution is a more likely outcome and one that would buy time for a longer budget deal at the end of the year.

Several prominent conservative leaders sounded resigned to a continuing resolution as House members began their recess last week.

“September is going to be a very difficult month, I mean obviously all of this is coming into play right away, all the fiscal issues and deadlines are going to make it extremely difficult to get everything done in a piece-by-piece basis,” said Rep. Mark Meadows (R-N.C.), the chairman of the conservative House Freedom Caucus.

“I think that there is no way to work quick enough to do a normal appropriations process, so a CR will be the result, because of inactivity in the Senate,” he added.

Congress will still be under pressure this fall to secure a spending deal even with a continuing resolution.

New budget caps under a previous long-term budget deal are set to kick in in January. This would reduce spending below existing levels unless Congress passes a new law.

“Without a bipartisan budget deal lifting the caps,” said Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) vice chairman of the House Appropriations Committee, spending plans currently under consideration “would result in a 13.2 percent sequester on national security programs in just a few months, undermining military readiness.”

Then there’s the problem of the debt ceiling.

Raising the borrowing limit is a difficult vote for most members of Congress, but particularly for Republicans.

A Harvard–Harris Poll in June found that an astonishing 69 percent of voters were opposed to Congress raising the debt ceiling, even though the failure to do so could lead the United States to default on its debt. Even the suggestion that the government would not pay its bills could spark a new financial and economic crisis.

Under former President Barack Obama, conservatives tried to use the must-pass legislation to get spending reforms or other Republican priorities made into law.

With Trump in the White House and Republicans controlling both the House and Senate, however, the dynamics have shifted. Democrats may try to turn the tables and extract concessions from Republicans, who will need Democratic support to pass the debt ceiling.

“To ensure that we have robust economic growth and promote fiscal discipline, the Trump administration believes it’s important to raise the debt ceiling as soon as possible,” White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders said on Tuesday.

Even so, some Republicans are still pushing for some sort of policy reform to hitch to the debt ceiling.

“I’ve been raising the issue of the debt ceiling for months now, and certainly what I’d like to see is some meaningful, structural control enacted in conjunction with increasing,” said Sen. Ron Johnson (R-Wis.).

The difficult decisions come as Republicans grapple with a narrative that they are unable to govern.

In the first six months of the Trump administration, they have yet to finalize a major piece of legislation, including the healthcare bill that failed in the Senate last week.

Come autumn, the GOP will likely have to choose between allowing the government to shut down and default on its debt and making politically difficult, unpopular decisions. 

Tags Barack Obama Patrick Leahy Ron Johnson Steven Mnuchin
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