Despite the high drama and the frayed political emotions of the past week's fiscal brinkmanship, the hard deficit-cutting decisions still remain unmade.
The tumultuous House and Senate debates and agonized votes on a five-year budget plan that would save $500 billion, $40.1 billion of it in the fiscal year that began last Monday, did little but delay the day of political reckoning when lawmakers will have to confront the difficult choices of whose taxes to raise and whose benefits to cut.
"The tough vote is coming," said Senate Minority Leader Robert J. Dole (R-Kan.). Said Rep. Bill Frenzel (Minn.), the House Budget Committee's ranking GOP member, "It's going to be the equal of the struggle we've had so far."
The vote will be on legislation called the "reconciliation" bill, a measure that reconciles current tax and benefit program laws to meet the savings targets in the budget resolution.
The budget resolution to which the Senate gave final congressional approval early yesterday morning directs a dozen House committees and 10 Senate panels to find benefit-program savings and new taxes and fees that would save $258.6 billion over five years. The rest of the $500 billion in savings would come from cuts in programs subject to annual appropriations.
The committees will have to try to come up with what Bush administration officials and congressional leaders could not: a package of tax increases and benefit cuts that is politically palatable enough to be approved little more than a month before Election Day.
If any of the committees miss their targets, congressional leaders have the authority to offer amendments to the legislation that would bring them into line.
More than three-quarters of those savings must come from the tax-writing House Ways and Means and Senate Finance committees, which also have jurisdiction over such benefit programs as Medicare and unemployment insurance. The Ways and Means Committee held a closed-door meeting last night and the Finance Committee is to meet today.
Another important component will be decided by the House and Senate Agriculture committees, which are now negotiating a five-year revision of federal farm policy. And the Senate Governmental Affairs and House Post Office and Civil Service committees will also consider decisions that could affect the retirement benefits of millions of federal workers.
Reconciliation is a process that rarely lives up to its soothing name, pitting powerful committee chairmen, backbenchers and their parochial interests against one another. "Only in Congress is 'reconciliation' a fighting word," said House Speaker Thomas S. Foley (D-Wash.).
By their very nature, reconciliation bills are big and unwieldy. They are often quickly considered in the face of strict deadlines. As a result, they become magnets for irrelevant provisions.
Last year, House Energy and Commerce Committee Chairman John D. Dingell (D-Mich.) tried to slip a broadcasting regulation that the Bush administration opposed into the measure. It was only noticed when congressional aides proofread the document just before the House took it up.
This year, the resolution sets a very tight, though artificial, timeframe for the committees to finish their work, asking them to report their savings by next Monday. A non-binding amendment added to the stopgap spending bill expressed the "sense of Congress" that the deadline be moved forward three days, to Friday. Administration officials and congressional leaders have agreed to try to finally pass the measure by Oct. 19.
That deadline, which carries no sanction for its violation, is extremely optimistic.
To add pressure, President Bush insisted that the short-term spending bill currently funding the government expire on Oct. 19. He also said he would not sign another continuing appropriations bill if the details of the deficit-cutting package have not been settled by that date, threatening another government shutdown.
Having brought the government to the precipice of disaster, Bush is essentially moving the cliff forward. Foley calls it an "unnecessary and artificial crisis." The speaker acknowledges, though, "that is the political reality we have to deal with."
And in Congress, rarely a slave to deadlines, the reality is that nothing gets done until it absolutely, positively has to be done. Only once in the last decade, in 1988, have lawmakers approved all 13 spending bills that fund the federal government before the beginning of the new fiscal year. And that feat was only accomplished thanks to a House clerk who sprinted across the Capitol to deliver the necessary papers to the Senate just seconds before midnight.
"Everything gets done the last week," said a veteran House leadership aide. "The trick is to convince everybody it really is the last week."
DATES TO WATCH
Early Tuesday morning the House gave final approval to a stopgap spending bill that funds the government through Oct. 19. But Congress still must meet two key deadlines to avoid a government shutdown:
BY OCTOBER 15 . . .
Congressional committees must draw up plans that cut programs and increase taxes and fees, as called for in a newly-proposed deficit reduction package. BY OCTOBER 19 . . .
Both House and Senate must review and approve the committee plans. Final approval must be given Oct. 19th. IF THEY CONGRSS DOESN'T ACT . . .
If the Congress has not implemented a deficit-reduction measure by Oct. 19, the government will again run out of money and be forced to shut down. President Bush has said he will not sign another temporary spending measure until a deficit accord is in place.