Long ago—September 29th to be precise—Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KS) announced that Speaker of the House John Boehner (R-OH) and President Barack Obama would take one last stab at negotiating a budget agreement. The threesome—known in DC as old-school compromisers—may very well be able to hammer out a deal that would raise the strict sequester budget caps for the next two years. The goal was to have a deal ready for congressional action before the short-term spending measure runs out on December 11.
Sounded easy for three well-established negotiators to come up with a deal that all parties can equally like and hate, right? Well, that was then (September) and this is Washington where nothing is ever easy. First, Speaker Boehner announced that he was stepping down as Speaker and retiring from Congress. The likelihood of any agreement to come to fruition prior to Speaker Boehner’s departure is extraordinarily unlikely. These negotiators are good but they aren’t that good. Complicating matters, the heir apparent to Speaker Boehner, House leader Kevin McCarthy (R-CA), then inexplicably took himself out of the race for Speaker. So, here in mid-October, we simply do not know who will take Speaker Boehner’s place at the negotiating table.
The second complicating factor in the budget negotiations is the unrest in the House Republican Caucus. The same ultra conservatives who led the charge to remove Speaker Boehner are adamantly opposed to any increase in the spending caps. While Senate Republicans recognize that shutting down the government is an ineffective way to govern, the House ultra conservatives would rather shut down the government than compromise.
The third complicating factor is the scope of the bill itself. Congress has to address many other issues by the end of the year, including funding our transportation infrastructure, raising the debt ceiling limit, and funding some corporate taxes. Will these issues be included in the final package? Will the spending caps be raised, paving the way for reasonably funded federal government for FY16? Will the leaders at the negotiating table be able to shepherd their respective members in support of a final package?
Meantime, the federal government is facing a possible third shutdown, leaving agencies like the National Institutes of Health and the National Science Foundation to look once again at freeze-in-place operations. So the question hanging over Capitol Hill is simple: Will they get this done or won’t they?