PI Original Ellyn Fortino Monday November 24th, 2014, 4:39pm

Lame Duck Congress Faces Tight Budget Deadline To Avert Government Shutdown

Federal lawmakers are up against a December 11 deadline to pass spending legislation to avert a government shutdown. Progress Illinois previews what's ahead for Congress in the remaining days of the lame duck session, including a possible budget showdown over President Barack Obama's executive action on immigration.

Congress is scheduled to reconvene next week for the remaining days of the post-election lame duck session, during which lawmakers must act on spending legislation to prevent another government shutdown.

Some conservative Republicans want to use the budgeting process to block President Barack Obama's recent immigration executive order, a move that could provoke the second government shutdown in over a year, which House Speaker John Boehner and soon-to-be Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell want to avoid.

"I think the more moderate Republicans and the more seasoned members of Congress know that a government shutdown at this point is probably not in the best interest of the Republican image," said Nick Kachiroubas, visiting assistant professor at DePaul University's School of Public Service.

Still, Kachiroubas said there is a possibility GOP leaders could cave to the more conservative faction of the Republican Party, which has previously "been able to get traction with the speaker and the other leadership to get what they want."

The current short-term continuing resolution that keeps the federal government operating expires on December 11. To avoid a government shutdown, Congress could either pass another stopgap spending bill or an omnibus measure that sets funding levels for the remainder of the fiscal year, which ends September 30.

Appropriators, who have been advocating for the latter option, are hammering out a 12-bill omnibus spending package, with the hopes of having it completed and brought for a vote ahead of the December 11 funding deadline.

"We're moving forward on a good program to get an omnibus done," U.S. Sen. Dick Durbin (D-IL) said last week, according to CQ Roll Call.

GOP leaders had initially favored adopting a long-term spending measure during the lame duck session before Republicans take control of the Senate and expand their majority in the House next year, but Obama's executive orders on immigration reform, which were signed on Friday, have obviously complicated the matter.

Loyola University of Chicago political science professor Alan Gitelson believes it is likely that Congress will resolve the budgetary issue before the funding deadline, but "there's absolutely no certainty at this particular point" and no way of "knowing to what degree they're going to have to compromise on this issue."

"The antagonisms are significant between the Democrats and the Republicans, and particularly between the Republicans and the president. And having said that, the Republicans internally have tensions that they have to deal with," he explained.

"We know that both the Democratic leadership and members and the Republican leadership want to resolve this issue," Gitelson continued. "What we don't know at this particular point in time is how much pressure can be placed on the Republican leadership to resolve the issue."

Meanwhile, House Appropriations Chairman Hal Rogers (R-KY,5) maintains that defunding the president's immigration reform efforts as some conservatives have suggested would be "impossible" anyway, because the agency tasked with handling the reforms, the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, "is entirely self-funded through the fees it collects on various immigration applications," a Thursday statement from his office reads.

Republicans pushing the defunding idea, however, insist there are other options to thwart Obama's executive order through an appropriations bill.

GOP leaders have yet to spell out their strategy to push back on the president's immigration actions, though McConnell has vowed that Congress "will act" next year when Republicans control both chambers. The next Congress starts January 3.

"If President Obama acts in defiance of the people and imposes his will on the country, Congress will act," McConnell said Thursday, USA Today reported. "We're considering a variety of options, but make no mistake: When the newly elected representatives of the people take their seats, they will act."

As Republicans scramble to formulate their next move, Durbin, who chairs the defense appropriations subcommittee, is urging against another short-term continuing resolution to fund the government.

"A CR, from the defense point of view, is disastrous," the senator stressed last week. "It not only fails to fund things that are critical for our national defense, it puts the Department of Defense in a terrible situation in terms of trying to make our nation ready and prepared for anything that comes our way."

The Center on Budget and Policy Priorities (CBPP) has also recommended that Congress approve a long-term spending plan, saying the use of temporary continuing resolutions creates "considerable uncertainty" because "they don't set definitive funding levels even for the months they cover."

"If appropriations are delayed until the new Congress takes office, final resolution likely won't come until roughly halfway through the fiscal year, which began October 1," CBPP's Senior Policy Consultant David Reich said in a November 18 report. "Postponing decisions for that long would damage government operations, hampering planning and cramming important decisions about programs, contracts, and grants into the last few months of the fiscal year."

Among other recommendations, the CBPP is also calling on federal lawmakers to restore Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) research funding that was left out of the current continuing resolution, which was passed in mid-September.

The $15 million in research funding, provided annually under the 1996 Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act, was not included in the continuing resolution "due to a technical change in the way that the Congressional Budget Office (CBO) treats this funding," according to CBPP. The funding is used in part to improve state TANF programs and develop strategies to boost employment among TANF recipients and other low-income families.

LaDonna Pavetti, CBPP's vice president for family income support policy, warned in a report late last month that "projects now underway will end and important opportunities to learn more about effective ways to increase skills, employment, and earnings among disadvantaged individuals will be lost" if the TANF research funding is not restored.

"This is extremely short-sighted, especially since the full value of investments already made in important research projects will not be realized if funding ends before the projects are completed," she added.

Acting on either a short- or long-term government funding bill is just one of many issues on lawmakers' plates when they return from Thanksgiving break. Among other items, Congress is debating whether to renew a number of federal tax breaks that mostly expired at the end of last year. 

IRS Commissioner John Koskinen has urged lawmakers to address the so-called "tax extenders" package by no later than the end of November, saying in an October 6 letter to Senate Finance Committee Chairman Ron Wyden (D-OR) that the IRS might have to "postpone the opening of the 2015 filing season and delay the processing of tax refunds for millions of taxpayers" if debate over the issue "persists into December or later."

"Moreover, if Congress enacts any policy changes to the existing extenders or adds new provisions, the IRS would have to reprogram systems and make processing changes, which would result in longer delays," the letter continues. "If Congress waits until 2015 and then enacts retroactive tax law changes affecting 2014, the operational and compliance challenges would be even more severe -- likely resulting in service disruptions, millions of taxpayers needing to file amended returns, and substantially delayed refunds."

Gitelson, who said the Republicans "certainly want to be able to leave the bargaining table with those tax credits extended," suspects that Democratic leaders and the Obama administration would be willing to renew them.

"I think it's one of those issues that they'd like to put aside for the time being," he said.

Overall, the political experts do not anticipate much action on major policy issues in the final days of the lame duck session beyond the budget.

In the first weeks of the current lame duck session, which started November 12, Congress took up, but failed to pass, a bill to approve the controversial Keystone XL pipeline. The legislation cleared the House but fell one vote short in the Senate.

Both chambers did, however, approve a bipartisan bill reauthorizing and improving the Child Care and Development Block Grant program, which provides federal funding for childcare assistance to low-income working families.

Obama signed S. 1086, the Child Care and Development Block Grant Act of 2014, last Wednesday.

Gitelson said the child care legislation is one of only a few "clear-cut issues" where Republicans and Democrats can currently find common ground.  

"Forecasting what's going to happen during this lame duck session in one sense is easy, and that is not very much," he added. "Will there be some things that get through? Yes. And the most recent passage of this bill is a good case in point. But, again, that is an easier issue to get a handle on and an easier issue for both parties to deal with than most of the very tense issues."

Image: AP

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