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Like a kayak over a waterfall, the U.S. Congress is barreling toward another episode of government shutdown theater. Jordain Carney of The Hill explains:
Lawmakers are scrambling to avoid a government shutdown as they barrel toward another funding deadline without a clear path forward.
GOP leadership is remaining tightlipped about their plan, with Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) and Speaker Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) declining to outline their next steps before a Jan. 19 deadline.
They are expected to offer a short-term stopgap measure given the fast-approaching deadline and a failure to lockdown a deal on raising spending ceilings for defense and nondefense.
Since both major parties in Congress are looking to raise spending, the only real question is by how much will they do so. Republican leaders are looking to spend more on defense and infrastructure projects, while Democrat leaders are demanding equal spending increases for all non-defense programs, as if the two types of spending were not completely independent of one another.
The reason that there is a potential for a shutdown is because both parties are looking to get out from under the spending caps that were set as part of the Budget Control Act of 2011. Tara Golshan of Vox describes how a law from seven years ago is constraining today’s legislators.
It all goes back to 2011, when an Obama-era impasse over the debt ceiling brought the American economy to near calamity. The ultimate result was the 2013 sequester, which set into law across-the-board budget cuts and established caps that would amount to $1.2 trillion in cuts over the next 10 years.
It’s important to remember that these sequester caps were never actually supposed to go into effect. They were designed to force a compromise. To win Republican votes to raise the debt ceiling, Obama agreed to push Congress to reduce the national debt, threatening cuts to domestic programs, which Democrats didn’t want, and to military spending, which Republicans didn’t want.
Since the sequester, there have been two bipartisan deals to raise the caps by billions of dollars. The first in 2013 was forged between Paul Ryan and Patty Murray; a second was agreed upon in 2015.
There’s no question that Trump wants Congress to do that again. His proposed defense budget busts the sequester cap by tens of billions. There’s just one problem: Congress needs 60 votes in the Senate.
Congress now has until January 19 — less than two weeks — to find a way to avoid a government shutdown and a sequester. Democrats don’t often find themselves in a position to leverage their agenda, but the sequester caps open a path to get protections for the undocumented immigrants previously covered by the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program and permanent funding for the Children’s Health Insurance Program.
Republicans really do need Democratic votes to raise the sequester caps and avoid a government shutdown, but so far, neither party seems ready to compromise.
And thus, we are a little over a week away from yet another episode of federal government shutdown theater, as the Democrats and Republicans play a game of legislative chicken in the meantime.