It’s stuck because neither the House nor Senate has passed a budget plan that outlines spending for fiscal year (FY) 2018.
Why is it stuck?
Because the majorities in both chambers cannot agree on how much to spend on defense and non-defense programs. Moderate Republicans are concerned that a budget plan similar to the ones proposed by the president or the House speaker would make it very difficult for the House or Senate to maintain spending at current levels, let alone increase spending where consensus to increase spending existed. Conservative Republicans are pushing hard to substantially reduce spending for non-defense discretionary programs and substantially increase spending for defense discretionary programs, and want to break down the current spending caps that ensure that whatever gains or losses in spending occur are equally shared by defense and non-defense programs.
What does this mean?
It means that as we get closer to the September 30th deadline for passing a FY 2018 appropriations bills, the likelihood that Congress will yet again have to rely on a continuing resolution or omnibus appropriations bill to fund the federal government increases substantially. It also means that the chances of a government shutdown will increase.
Why is this happening?
This is happening because the Senate’s failure to pass legislation to repeal and replace the Affordable Care Act (ACA) has upended the carefully planned schedule that the Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) developed for passage of a broad range of bills, including a federal debt ceiling increase, tax reform, appropriations, and several reauthorization bills.
According to Bloomberg Government, Senator McConnell was hoping to bring up a measure to raise the federal debt limit, and push through a U.S. Department of Defense bill with large spending increases for the Pentagon in July. At the same time, McConnell was also hoping to use the work period to ensure the timely renewal of many expiring federal programs. Until the Senate adopts a budget resolution; however, it will not be able to move forward with tax reform legislation that relies on reconciliation. Under reconciliation the majority needs just 51 votes, rather than the usual 60 votes, to pass legislation. If the Senate cannot pass either health care or tax reform legislation sometime in July or early September (remember they are out for a break in August), the likelihood of passing any tax or health care legislation this calendar year will further diminish, and the series of major legislative promises made by the president will go unfulfilled.
So where do we go from here?
It is very hard to know. Certainly, Senator McConnell is a master of legislative rules and procedures, and if anyone can move things through the Senate it is he. But the limited amount of time before the end of the fiscal year does not bode well for Republicans.
Senator John Cornyn (R-TX) acknowledged these difficulties when he told reporters that “it doesn’t get any better, it doesn’t get any easier. We’ve got other things we need to do, like the defense authorization bill. We need to get ready to pass another budget so we can get reconciliation instructions for tax reform.”
The next several months should prove interesting. Depending on how this all turns out, the losers and winners will be neither Republicans nor Democrats, not even Independents. It will be the American people. We will just have to stay tuned and hope that someone, somehow will develop a strategy for moving legislation forward.