By joining the Senate in passing a stripped-down version of a budget outline for the current fiscal year, the House has eased budgetary threats to federal benefits that its own version would have imposed–but another budgetary day of reckoning is not far off.
The budget resolution paves the way for Congress to consider changes to tax policy under procedures that will allow for passage in the Senate without Democratic support. As with a similar procedure that was used in an earlier attempt at health care policy changes, though, Republicans there could afford no more than two votes from their own members against the measure.
That House action was seen as possibly the only way Republicans could finish work this year on what they hope will be their major accomplishment for the year, tax reform. A conference between the two chambers could have lasted weeks, given the differences between the two initial versions. The House measure would have ordered congressional committees to find substantial savings in programs under their control. In the case of the committees overseeing the federal workforce, that would have been a requirement for $32 billion over 10 years, which those committees almost certainly would have sought to find by shifting more of the FEHB premium cost onto enrollees and by increasing required contributions toward retirement and/or cutting annuity benefits.
Apart from the tax issues–which likely will consume much of Capitol Hill’s attention in upcoming weeks–lies the need to decide on agency spending levels for the rest of this fiscal year.
Congress already has used up, without making much progress, half the time it bought itself in late September to deal with budget matters by enacting a temporary continuation of agency spending authority through December 8. Such deadlines always raise the threat of partial government shutdowns due to differences over spending levels and policies; shutdown rumblings already are being sounded over what is shaping up as showdowns over funding for health care and border security.
A further complication is that at the same time the federal debt ceiling will need to be raised, another common trigger for budgetary brinksmanship.