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Our Crystal Ball Is a Little Cracked, But …

January 27, 2018

There were indications this week (but no certainty) that immigration reform is going to be negotiated separately from the appropriations process. If that stands, then Congress might have an easy path to finish funding bills before February 8, when the current CR expires. It might just work out that way.

Then again, it might not. There are still a number of contentious issues that need to be resolved. The most important is that the Budget Control Act of 2011 (BCA) needs to be amended before FY 18 appropriations bills can be adopted. The BCA sets separate caps on the amounts that can be spent on defense and non-defense programs in each fiscal year into the 2020s.  The immediate problem is that the House-passed FY 18 omnibus appropriations bill provides for defense spending that is $72 billion over this year’s cap. The Senate seems to agree that a very large increase is justified.

To amend the BCA, Majority Leader McConnell will need at least some Democratic votes (to get to 60) and that will require simultaneously increasing the non-defense cap. In turn, Speaker Ryan may need as least some Democratic votes because he has members who may vote against any increase in federal spending.

Behind the scenes — and away from the immigration debate — there have been negotiations for weeks on the budget caps. In general, Democrats want both caps increased by the same amount; in general, Republicans want the smallest possible increase in the non-defense cap. Both sides want a 2-year deal to incorporate FY 19 caps, to lessen the chances of continuing resolutions and funding fights occurring just before the election.

Once agreements are reached on budget ceilings, Congress must then put together a massive omnibus appropriations that irons out all of the differences between the House and Senate positions. According to  Bloomberg Politics, that process might take as long as 3 weeks, pushing a CR into late February to early March.  At that point, Bloomberg suggests that the omnibus spending bill might become the ideal vehicle for raising the debt ceiling, an issue on which no Member of Congress wants a stand-alone vote. Then McConnell and Ryan will definitely need some Democrats because both have party members who intend to vote against an increase in the debt ceiling.

So, while there may be a way to wrap up all the loose ends by February 8, that seems unlikely. The most we can hope for is a lot of progress and the perception that all of the remaining issues can be resolved as long as there is a little more time.  That’s a lot of crystal-balling on my part, so this should be treated as one plausible scenario for how things will go. It is surely not the only possibility.

Editorial note: The Analysis and Commentary section is written by Steven Grossman, Deputy Executive Director of the Alliance for a Stronger FDA.

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