Congress Returns to Shutdown, Debt Ceiling, Budget Issues

Congress has returned from its summer recess to face the same issues it left behind more than a month ago, with the added consideration of relief funding for Hurricane Harvey now added.

The government faces a partial shutdown starting October 1 if legislators do not enact at least temporary funding for agencies beyond the start of the new fiscal year, in the absence of regular appropriations. Signals from the Trump administration have been mixed. Officials have voiced threats–in some cases, phrased more as desires–for a shutdown showdown to force decisions on the administration’s budget priorities including construction of a southern border wall. More recently, though, have come indications that the administration is willing to defer that issue and temporarily extend current funding levels, possibly into December–which would delay, although not eliminate, the threat of a shutdown–while concentrating on disaster relief first.

The House meanwhile is moving ahead with plans to pass regular spending bills that have emerged from its Appropriations Committee. Before the recess it passed a measure tying together four of them and it has on its schedule a planned vote on a separate measure combining the other eight. The Senate, though, has made little progress on appropriations bills even at the committee level.

Congress also faces the separate challenge of raising the federal debt ceiling, which the government is projected to hit around the end of this month. Hitting the ceiling would not necessarily trigger a shutdown but it would cause the government to enter unexplored territory regarding how it would operate–in addition to the serious implications for the economy.

Also still pending is the fate of a House-passed spending outline that calls for savings in federal retirement programs–which it suggests could be achieved through steps such as raising the required employee contributions. That measure has been stalled for months but pressure remains to pass some version through the Senate to create “reconciliation” authority for the Senate to later vote on a planned tax reform measure–a top legislative priority of the White House and congressional Republicans–with only a simple majority needed to pass.