What’s going on right now?
Democrats and Republicans in the Senate are trying to find a way to reopen the government – which has been partially shut down for two weeks – and avoid breaching a Thursday deadline to raise the federal debt ceiling. But they haven’t found one yet.
What are they fighting over?
At a basic level, they are just trying to find a way for the government to open and to raise the debt ceiling. To do so, Republicans say they need something to save face. Democrats don’t want to make it seem like they are giving in too much.
Are they close to a deal?
It’s hard to say. The deal that seemed to have the most potential on Friday was a proposal by Sen. Susan Collins, a moderate Republican from Maine.
The proposal had a few basic parts.
- It would have opened the government and funded it through March 31.
- It would have raised the debt ceiling through Jan. 31.
- It would have made some minor modifications to Obamacare – including delaying a medical device tax that nobody likes any way and greater scrutiny of the subsidies that go to low- and moderate-income people to help them buy health insurance.
- It would give agencies a little more flexibility to implement the across-the-board spending cuts known as sequester.
- It would set up budget negotiations with hope of finding agreement that would avoid another showdown before Jan. 31.
Though the Collins proposal drew a lot of attention and Republican Senate leaders threw their support behind it, Democrats have rejected it, leaving the Senate at an impasse.
Why did Democrats reject the proposal?
For a few reasons. Most importantly, it would seem to lock in the sequester.
The sequester received a lot of attention earlier this year, before it took effect. It was the result of another budget battle in 2011, and it basically forces deep defense and domestic spending cuts, year-after-year, to rein in the deficit. To many Democrats, the sequester is toxic because it cuts into priorities like education and research and development.
The next round of sequester cuts is set to take place Jan. 15. If the Collins plan were enacted, those cuts would take effect and Democrats could do little about it.
Democrats have other wants, too. Most notably, they don’t want another debt ceiling battle as soon as January, so they’d like the debt ceiling to be increased for a longer period of time.
So how long do lawmakers have to figure out a solution?
Umm, not long. Thursday is the day when the government no longer can borrow any money and basically will be running on fumes.
After the debt ceiling deadline is breached, the Treasury Department might have to delay or suspend Social Security checks, food stamps and tens of billions of dollars in payments.
It could take a few days – or maybe a week or two – but soon enough there would be major problems.
Treasury would have only daily tax receipts to pay for the government – which amount to only 70 cents for every dollar of federal spending. And that could cause financial market chaos and a recession.
By the way, whatever happened to Republicans’ demand that Obamacare be delayed or defunded?
Those demands are basically gone now. Republicans are still hoping for some “fig leafs” – such as delaying the medical device tax – but don’t expect any big changes to the health care law.
So, where do we stand?
As we said earlier, at an impasse. But in the Senate, both sides are still hopeful that they can find a solution early this week.
One easy path to a solution would be for Republicans to agree to roll back part of the sequester – either unilaterally or in exchange for something else, like changes to entitlements.
If that’s not possible, Democrats might push to fund the government for a shorter period of time – say until Thanksgiving or early January. That would force lawmakers to come back to the table to try to find a solution to the sequester before the next round of cuts take effect.
Democrats are hopeful they could force a sequester replacement because next year, the sequester happens to cut defense spending more than domestic spending, which worries some key Republicans.
The problem is that many in the GOP see the sequester as a historic win for cutting spending – and would hesitate to give that up.
So will Republicans and Democrats find agreement?
If we knew that, we would be called psychics, not journalists.
OK, let’s say the Senate does find a solution. Can it get through Congress and to the President before the debt ceiling deadline?
Possibly, but it will be tough. For starters, any senator can object to consideration of a bill. And if that happens, it takes a few days to force a vote.
And nobody knows what will happen in the House. Many expect any Senate agreement to pass with the support of most Democrats and a some Republicans, but it’s hard to know what kind of vote House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) will allow.
This doesn’t sound good.
We know, but somehow they’ve figured out a way to avoid catastrophe before.
What might force a solution?
Maybe if financial markets freaked out. But they haven’t so far.
Again, we’re not psychics.
So if lawmakers solve this, might we be doing this all over in a couple of weeks or months?
It depends on the length of any final agreement. But, yep, we might.