Five reasons the next budget fight could be worse

at 03:36 PM ET, 09/26/2011

Think this budget fight is bad? Just wait a few weeks. Even if Congress manages to resolve its differences over the current budget extension, the continuing resolution funds the government only until Nov. 18. And the next round of budget negotiations will feature much larger stakes, much more consequential differences, and many more opportunities and excuses for mischief. Here are five potential flash points:

1) The entire 2012 budget will be under negotiation, not just emergency funds: The rapid escalation of the current shutdown fight is over a small sliver of emergency disaster aid money. That has obscured the broad bipartisan consensus over the vast majority of government spending — at least until Nov. 18. Both parties have agreed to abide by the debt-ceiling agreement’s overall budget target of $1.043 trillion, and they have decided to meet that number by freezing funding for all non-defense spending at last year’s levels minus a 1.5 percent, across-the-board reduction.
(AFP)

That’s not going to happen the next time around, when the funding for all of FY2012 is at stake. Party leaders say they’ll continue to abide by the overall $1.043 trillion funding limit under the debt-ceiling deal, which requires $21 billion in spending cuts for 2012. But neither party is pushing for across-the-board cuts again to reach that target. Instead, legislators want to cut more money from some places than others. And that could spark many turf battles over spending priorities.

2) Congress hasn’t decided whether it will pass the next budget piecemeal or all at once: Traditionally, budgets are supposed to pass through 12 separate appropriations bills, so individual committees can closely examine and allocate funds for specific programs. But neither the House nor the Senate has finished putting all these individual bills through the paces: The House has voted on six appropriations bills, and the Senate has voted on just one. Given the time crunch, GOP leaders recently said they’d be willing to consider an omnibus approach, which would lump everything into one bill — and one set of negotiations.

But there are political risks in that approach as well. Republican House Speaker John Boehner previously railed against Democrats for using an omnibus budget to ram undesirable items through Congress without adequate scrutiny. The right flank of the House GOP and tea party groups have made clear they’re not happy with the approach, which could force Boehner to rely even more heavily on Democratic lawmakers to pass the 2012 budget or demand larger concessions to satisfy conservative legislators.

3) Both parties have already drawn battle lines on funding priorities: In the meantime, both parties have begun laying out their goals for the 2012 budget, some of which have already sparked partisan attacks. For example, the House GOP’s appropriations bill would cut a food assistance program for low-income women and children by $833 million below FY2011 levels, providing $5.9 billion total, and would cut federal highway funding to $27 billion — $11.7 billion below the FY2011 level. Democratic aides have slammed such GOP proposals, calling the cuts “class warfare.” And that’s just a tiny portion of the budget that will be under negotiation.

4) There could be big fights over policy riders: This is what tripped up the budget negotiations the last time around. Back in April, Republicans pushed to restrict funding for Planned Parenthood and abortion in the District of Columbia through “riders” that placed conditions on the money. Congress could deadlock over riders again, but it’s not just abortion that could be at issue.

In July, the House Energy and Commerce Committee passed an appropriations bill that would cut EPA funding by 20 percent and impose a slew of policy riders rolling back regulations on coal ash, carbon pollution and toxic emissions from power plants, among others. The House GOP has since doubled down on the issue: On Friday, it passed a bill to place unprecedented restrictions on the EPA’s air-pollution rules. A Republican aide confirmed on Monday that House Appropriations Committee Chairman Hal Rogers “will fight hard for the bills that have passed the House” in the next round of 2012 budget negotiations. And that’s just one of the hot-button regulatory issues that could draw battle lines in November.

5) The supercommittee is due to provide its deficit-reduction proposal at the same time: Finally, the 2012 budget negotiations could also be complicated by what the supercommittee produces. The deadline for the deficit-reduction package — which would take effect in 2013 — is November 23, which could overlap with the 2012 budget as well if negotiations carry on past November 18. Whether or not there is a proposal on the table (and what it looks like) could shape what legislators want to prioritize in the 2012 budget and how much they really want to dig in for a single year’s funding.

 
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