By JOHN T. BENNETT
WASHINGTON — A prominent federal budget analyst is predicting the best Congress will do this year on spending bills is pass two massive government-wide measures.
With the Senate unable to move 2015 appropriations bills — and with only a dozen legislative days left before November’s midterm elections followed by a lame duck session — political and defense observers are trying to determine how lawmakers will handle a government shutdown threat.
Make that two government shutdown threats. And maybe three in the next seven months.
Senate Appropriations Committee Ranking Member Sen. Richard Shelby, R-Ala., told CongressWatch in July that he is betting both chambers will pass a continuing resolution (CR) in September to keep the Defense Department and other federal agencies operating while lawmakers campaign in October and early November.
That measure, Shelby and others predict, likely will fund the government “until the middle of November, when we come back,” he said.
What happens then — with the prospect of Democrats being in their final weeks of controlling the chamber — is anyone’s guess.
Some lawmakers and analysts predict the post-midterm session will yield an omnibus spending measure, possibly with a full-year DoD spending bill and maybe several others attached to another CR.
Others, like longtime federal budget watcher Stan Collender, said a second CR is the most the political environment will be able to produce. And he believes it won’t pass until December.
“Congress will return to Washington after Labor Day with little-to-no chance of enacting more than 1 or 2 (and even that’s a stretch) of the 12 regular 2015 appropriations by the time the fiscal year begins on October 1,” Collender writes in his latest Forbes.com column.
“That means it’s not just an overwhelming likelihood that a continuing resolution will be needed to keep federal agencies operating and prevent the government from shutting down, it’s a virtual certainty,” he writes.
Collender’s should be a familiar name for defense sector readers. For years, he has been one of the briefers at the annual Pentagon budget preview session of the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments (CSBA), a defense think tank.
His column likely won’t give the defense sector much hope for a full-year Pentagon appropriations bill, which Pentagon brass and industry executives say is necessary for programmatic stability.
That’s because “with the possible exception of three appropriations,” including the DoD bill, the national political environment incentivizes lawmakers to oppose yearly agency spending bills.
“It is still better politics to vote for a CR before the election and make promises during the campaign about what you’re going do in a lame duck session afterwards than to make final decisions in September on which you may be judged,” Collender writes.
Other reasons he sees that only two CRs may pass this year:
- “Even if congressional Republicans and Democrats and the White House were working together — and they clearly won’t be doing that this fall — there won’t be enough time to get much done on appropriations after Congress gets back to Washington after Labor Day.”
- “It’s not in the GOP’s political interest to make final appropriations decisions for fiscal 2015 before the election.”
Collender predicts the first CR taking effect on Oct. 1, the first day of fiscal 2015, and running into mid-December. The second, he says, likely would be passed in December; it would “last through about the middle of March if Republicans win control the Senate or possibly through the full year if they don’t.”
If that scenario plays out, it would test a thin Republican majority’s ability to pass another massive spending bill in the spring, or another short-term measure that would tee up a fourth shutdown threat.