Between the ‘Line’s: Shutdowns, Smackdowns, Benchmarks, and Backbenchers

Shutdown Coming? – With most March Madness brackets in shambles, the new office pool of choice in Washington involves wagering on if the federal government will shut down. The current stopgap measure funding government operations expires on April 8 and whether an agreement can be reached on federal spending for the rest of the fiscal year before then depends on who you talk to, and when. While lieutenants who aren't in the room on both sides trade smackdowns publicly, the negotiations quietly continue and are reportedly progressing. There are also signs that Republicans in the House are reaching out to moderate Democrats on a possible deal. So, are the fireworks a sign that compromise is impossible, or are they providing cover as a deal is being hammered out? We should know by next week.

On to the Next Budget – Lawmakers may not yet be finished with Fiscal Year 2011 spending, but they must soon contend with the FY 2012 budget. House Budget Committee Chair Paul Ryan (R-WI) is expected to unveil his budget blueprint nearly next week. The new budget proposal will broaden the debate beyond the discretionary spending cuts dominating the discussion over 2011 appropriations as it will include changes to entitlements. The Ryan blueprint will not be alone, the Republican Study Committee, compromised of the most conservative members of the House, also will soon release a budget plan and more may follow from other groups.

Blue Dogs Offer Benchmarks for Fiscal Reform – The Blue Dog Coalition of moderate and conservative House Democrats today offered a framework to guide congressional efforts to put the U.S. on a sustainable fiscal course. The principles include stabilizing the debt at 60 percent of GDP in the near future and placing all areas of the budget on the table including tax reform, entitlements, and budget process reform. CRFB called the benchmarks “bold and balanced” in a release and Fiscal Commission co-chairs Erskine Bowles and Alan Simpson praised the “courage and vision” of the Blue Dogs in a joint statement.

New Senators Hit the Roof Over Debt Ceiling – Most of the freshman senators who rode into DC on the Tea Party wave have been relatively quiet so far, but they are indicating they won’t be backbenchers when it comes to raising the debt limit. Sen. Marco Rubio (R-FL) penned a Wall Street Journal op-ed saying he won’t vote to increase the statutory limit “unless it is the last one we ever authorize and is accompanied by a plan for fundamental tax reform, an overhaul of our regulatory structure, a cut to discretionary spending, a balanced-budget amendment, and reforms to save Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid.” He also calls for a comprehensive plan to reduce the debt that includes a statutory cap limiting it to 60 percent of GDP. Sen. Jerry Moran (R-KS) sent a letter to President Obama stating that he will vote “no” because the White House has not led on addressing the national debt. And Sen. Mike Lee (R-UT) has threatened to filibuster a debt ceiling increase unless Democrats agree to a balanced budget amendment. The debt limit could be reached as early as April, but the Treasury likely can take steps to put it off a little longer.

Things That Make You Say HAMP – The House on Tuesday voted to terminate the Home Affordable Modification Program (HAMP), which helps lower mortgage payments for some homeowners in need of assistance. The vote is a part of the House Republican effort to conduct at least one vote a week to cut federal spending. CBO estimates the bill will save $1.4 billion over ten years.

GOP Wants BBASenate Republicans tomorrow plan to unveil a consensus Balanced Budget Amendment that would mandate that the president submit a balanced budget each year, require a 2/3 vote of Congress to run a deficit in a given year and limit expenditures to 18 percent of GDP. Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) wants a vote on the proposal to accompany a vote to increase the debt limit. The House Balanced Budget Amendment Caucus is also gearing up to push for a similar amendment in that chamber.

Hearing a lot about the Deficit – Several hearings on Capitol Hill today dealt with budget issues. The House Budget Committee held its annual “Member’s Day” hearing where members of Congress testify. While lawmakers usually take advantage of the opportunity to plug for spending projects to be included in the budget that will aid their districts, many legislators used the forum to call for fiscal restraint. Meanwhile, a House Ways and Means Committee hearing addressed how growing budget deficits and national debt are impeding job growth. And the Health Subcommittee of the House Energy and Commerce Committee examined the budgetary impact of the health care reform law.