Congress appears to be on track to avert the first of three fiscal crises — a failure to raise the debt ceiling — but whether it can avoid across-the-board spending cuts and a government shutdown are still in question.
The House passed a bill Jan. 23 that suspends the debt limit until May 19 as long as Congress passes a budget. If lawmakers fail to do so, their pay will be held in escrow. Senate Majority Whip Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) said he did not know when the Senate would schedule a vote on the House’s debt ceiling measure. But with the support of the White House and Senate Democratic leaders, who say it is a precedent-setting shift by Republicans, it is likely to pass.
The bill has support from Senate Republicans as well. Sen. Richard Shelby (Ala.), the top Republican on the Senate Appropriations Committee, says ending the debt ceiling debate will take the pressure off of other immediate financial concerns and could allow for a larger deal on deficit reduction — even if it is not the $4 trillion grand bargain some have hoped for.
Shelby says he would support tax reforms, although he remains opposed to increases in taxes over 25% for anybody.
“Let’s see if the president is really involved,” Shelby says. “I wouldn’t vote against tax reform. Corporate welfare, oil-company welfare, all of this needs to go.”
With the debt ceiling issue close to resolution for the next three months, the conversation will shift toward the more immediate concerns of a nearly $1 trillion across-the-board budget cut scheduled to take place March 1.
Sen. Patty Murray (D-Wash.), who leads the Senate Budget Committee, plans to move forward with a budget that replaces so-called sequestration and sets appropriations levels. Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wis.), chairman of the House Budget Committee, is working on a version of the budget in the House as well.
But Murray’s budget resolution will deal formally with fiscal 2014, and not the first cut of sequestration. Regarding the sequestration cuts for fiscal 2013, Murray “is going to continue fighting for a balanced replacement that includes an equal mix of new revenue and responsible spending cuts,” says Budget Committee spokesman Eli Zupnick.
Durbin says he has been working with leadership and the appropriations committee on averting sequestration, calling the cuts “mindless,” but he was noncommittal about the details.
Sequestration is “going to happen,” Durbin says. “That’s the alternative if you don’t have House support for changing it. During the fiscal cliff debate, I thought there was sentiment, strong sentiment among some Republican senators, when it came to [avoiding] the defense sequestration. I found theirs was a minority viewpoint. Most of the Republican senators I spoke to said we’re for spending cuts, we want sequestration to go forward. So if there’s that sentiment on the Republican side in the Senate and among House Republicans, I think we’re committed to some form of sequestration spending cut.”