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Congress' Familiar Holiday Show: A Budget Cliffhanger

Congress' Familiar Holiday Show: A Budget Cliffhanger

By Caitlin Huey-Burns - December 10, 2014

’Tis the season for deadline drama on Capitol Hill. In keeping with their holiday-season tradition of running down the clock on must-pass legislation, lawmakers are rushing to approve a trillion-dollar budget bill by midnight Thursday to avoid a government shutdown.

In an encouraging sign, congressional leaders agreed on a 1,600-page bill Tuesday night after rounds of negotiations to fund most government agencies through the next fiscal year. The bill provides $521 billion for defense and $492 billion in non-defense spending, and includes emergency funding to combat ISIS as well as $5.4 billion to address Ebola, among other items.

The leaders are confident the funding legislation will pass through both chambers, as few on Capitol Hill want to go the shutdown route. But the question is when. Congressional procedure makes it nearly impossible for the measure to make it to the president’s desk in time. Members are prepared to pass a very short-term funding bill to give themselves a post-deadline window in which to complete a larger bill. The Senate could remain in session through the weekend. 

Keeping the government open is one of the last tasks remaining for the 113th Congress, a tumultuous session that included a 16-day partial shutdown last year. This time, it comes as lawmakers are preparing for major change in Washington next year, when Republicans will have control of both chambers of Congress.

The impending transition, along with President Obama’s controversial executive order on immigration, have had an impact on lawmakers’ approach during the lame duck session. Congressional Republicans feel emboldened by their election victories. Some believe the funding legislation should be used as leverage to push back against the immigration order. But party leaders are wary of eliciting another unfavorable public reaction to a shutdown and see better opportunities for gains when the new Congress is seated. For now, they want to pass a budget bill, which will require some help from Democrats.

After careful choreography on both sides, lawmakers are expected to meet the deadline -- but not without some theatrics. “It’s our Christmas ritual,” Republican Sen. John Thune joked to reporters. “In the end, this is going to move and we’re at a point where you want to get as much of this as you can behind you so we can start fresh next year.”

Harry Reid warned that senators may have to stay through the weekend and next week to finish up the year’s business, a threat he makes every holiday season as the chamber backs up against deadlines. The majority leader said he could support providing more time to move the continuing resolution, although he hoped that would not be necessary. .

The final legislation is expected to fund most of the government through next September, while extending funds for the Department of Homeland Security only through the beginning of 2015. The threat of withholding DHS funding is intended to give Republicans a chance to confront the administration on its immigration order. House Republicans voted on a measure last week that would block the executive action halting some deportations. The legislation was designed to appeal to conservatives’ concerns without derailing the spending bill, but it stands no chance of being considered by the Democratic Senate. Still, some of conservative members are reluctant to back the government funding bill without more concessions, so House Republicans will likely need votes from Democrats for passage.

Once the bill passes the House, it will move to the Senate, where objection from a single member could stall the measure. Leaders said they are hopeful that senators would agree to move forward with the bill, and advised that the New Year would provide the conference with more opportunities to advance its interests.

Congress also needs to approve a Defense Reauthorization bill, which sets Pentagon policy, as well as a package to renew dozens of expiring tax breaks, which passed the House last week. The Senate also has several executive nominations to consider, including one for surgeon general. Senate Republicans are also debating whether to maintain a change in filibuster rules for such nominees, which was put in place by Democrats last year. 

Adding to an already eventful, drama-filled week, Senate Democrats on Tuesday released a controversial “torture report” several years in the making that graphically details the CIA’s detention and interrogation practices.

Outgoing Intelligence Committee Chairwoman Dianne Feinstein spoke at length on the Senate floor in response to colleagues who questioned the report’s timing -- and whether it should have been released at all. “There may never be the ‘right’ time to release this report. The instability we see today will not be resolved in months or years,” Feinstein said. “But this report is too important to shelve indefinitely.”

Mitch McConnell, who will become the Senate majority leader next month, said the report “endangers the lives of Americans around the world” at a time of growing concern about terrorism.

Caitlin Huey-Burns is a congressional reporter for RealClearPolitics. She can be reached at chueyburns@realclearpolitics.com. Follow her on Twitter @CHueyBurnsRCP.

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