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Fiscal Fights Snarl US Congress, Imperil Other Legislation

  • Michael Bowman

The sun rises over the Capitol in Washington, Sept. 24, 2013. (AP)

The sun rises over the Capitol in Washington, Sept. 24, 2013. (AP)

With no clear path to avoid a U.S. government shutdown October 1, U.S. congressional leaders already are bracing for the next fight: to raise the federal borrowing limit before the United States hits its debt ceiling in mid-October. While partisan fiscal battles risk economic damage, they also monopolize lawmakers’ time and push other congressional business to the side.

Democratic Congressman Jared Polis said the Republican-controlled House of Representatives should be working to reform America’s immigration system rather than engaging in damaging fights centered on President Barack Obama’s health care law.

“This body has not spent one minute on the floor in consideration of an immigration reform bill. Not one minute. A lot of time on nothing, nothing, nothing. We need to act on so many pressing national issues,” said Polis.

Frustration is not limited to Democrats. Republican Senator Chuck Grassley said there are many issues that deserve Congress’ attention. “Tax reform. A constitutional amendment requiring a balanced budget. A farm bill.”

But with Congress already mired in a partisan fight to keep the government running, another battle is brewing. Thursday, House Speaker John Boehner said Republicans have conditions for raising the U.S. borrowing cap.

“We are going to introduce a plan that ties important spending cuts and pro-growth reforms to a debt-limit increase,” said Boehner.

Failure to hike the borrowing limit could trigger a default and another downgrade of U.S. creditworthiness. Boehner's announcement was immediately blasted by Democratic Senator Richard Durbin. “If they [House Republicans] stand by their position and do not give us a clean extension of the debt ceiling, the victims will include all employees across America.”

At the White House, spokesman Jay Carney repeated President Obama’s refusal to negotiate on the debt ceiling.

The bottom line? Congress and the White House are focused on two fiscal battles that will extend well into next month. Even if a shutdown is averted, spending authority is only expected to be extended for two to three months, setting the stage for another spending showdown near the end of the year.

“It pushes everything off the table,” said political analyst Stuart Rothenberg. “The Congress has had a difficult time over the past few years raising the debt ceiling, dealing with budgets and spending, and keeping the government open. We are really going to have a legislative logjam here.”

One possible casualty is immigration reform. Conventional wisdom holds that Congress must act this year if reform is to succeed, since lawmakers will shy from casting politically-charged votes ahead of the 2014 mid-term elections.

Immigration reform advocate Frank Sharry wants prompt congressional action. “I think it is going to be critical that the House of Representatives begins to address this issue, has votes. I think it is critical that we see action this year.”

Sharry adds that fiscal battles, however, need not obliterate immigration reform.

“It is more a matter of political will than the calendar. It would only take two or three days for the House to consider a series of individual bills. We think there is going to be more than enough time in late October or November to have a couple of days of votes that will get this process moving towards final passage,” said Sharry.

For now, all eyes are on the Senate, which is expected to pass a temporary federal spending bill that funds the Affordable Care Act, or “Obamacare.” That measure would go back to the House, which voted last week to defund Obamacare.

Boehner said he is confident there will be no government shutdown October 1, but declined to predict what will happen to prevent it.
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