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Debt Limit Move Provides Budget Deal Opportunity

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The short-term debt limit suspension detailed Monday by House Republicans appears likely to delay one fiscal confrontation, but opinions are divided on whether it could lay the groundwork for something much bigger.

The legislation expected to reach the House floor Wednesday would suspend the limit on government’s borrowing through May 18, then automatically increase the current $16.4 trillion ceiling to accommodate additional debt accumulated by that date.

The measure would delay further action on the debt limit until after Congress and President Barack Obama deal with automatic spending cuts now scheduled to begin March 1 and the March 27 expiration of the current stopgap spending law (PL 112-175).

What else the measure could lead to remains open to debate. Republicans intend for it to provide an incentive for adoption of a fiscal 2014 budget resolution. And if bipartisan agreement could be reached on a budget blueprint, that could provide a fast track for legislation implementing any fiscal agreement that the White House and lawmakers are able to negotiate.

The Republican-controlled House and Democrat-controlled Senate have been unable to agree on a budget resolution in recent years, and House Republicans contend the fault lies in the Senate. The House GOP bill made public just as Obama’s second inauguration ceremony was getting under way would suspend the salaries of members of the House or the Senate if either chamber does not adopt a budget resolution by the April 15 deadline set by the 1974 budget process law (PL 93-344). However, House and Senate agreement on a final budget resolution would not be required to keep congressional paychecks flowing.

There is some thought that restoring regular order in the congressional budget process could represent the first step toward a historic deficit reduction agreement addressing both taxes and spending. That is largely because adoption of a budget resolution would make it possible for lawmakers to use the reconciliation process.

Under reconciliation, lawmakers could instruct House and Senate committees to write legislation that would reduce the deficit by specified amounts. The committees’ proposals would be packaged for floor action with protection from a Senate filibuster.

At this point, such a scenario remains a long shot. The House and Senate have been unable to overcome partisan differences and strike budget deals. It’s unclear whether the threat of withheld salaries will be enough to nudge them toward an agreement.

The lawmaker who will write the House’s budget resolution, Budget Chairman Paul D. Ryan, R-Wis., said the House will adopt a budget plan with reconciliation instructions for tax code changes. But he offered no prediction of whether the House and Senate will be able to agree on a budget resolution or fast-track instructions.

William Hoagland, a former Republican Senate budget aide who is now a senior vice president at the Bipartisan Policy Center, said the reconciliation process offers a glimmer of hope that Congress can achieve the big deficit reduction deal it’s been looking for. “Anything we would do to get back to regular order, as difficult as that is, would be one of the shining lights that would come out of this otherwise miserable situation,” he said.

Former Speaker Newt Gingrich, R-Ga., was optimistic that the short-term debt limit suspension will lead to a deal similar to agreements a divided Congress made with President Ronald Reagan in 1986.

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