Up-Hill Drive for Spending Bills, But No Gas in the Tank for Paying for Them

Two massive spending bills that congressional leaders wanted to dispose of before hitting the road for Memorial Day have hit potholes as lawmakers grow more uneasy about deficit spending. However, proposals to assert some degree of fiscal responsibility have yet to leave the driveway.

Legislation extending tax cuts, expanded unemployment and COBRA benefits, and a “doc fix” has stalled due to rising concerns over adding to the federal debt. The original version of the bill had a price tag of some $188 billion, with only about $56 billion of it offset. When moderates balked, leadership pared down the net costs to $84 billion by curtailing the Medicare “doc fix” through only the end of next year and having the unemployment and COBRA benefits expire a month earlier. With the votes still not there, House leaders have cut further, jettisoning the COBRA subsidies and separating out the “doc fix.” The House is scheduled to vote later today while the Senate has decided to take up the issue after the recess.

Legislation providing supplemental funds for operations in Afghanistan and Iraq as well as some disaster aid has fared somewhat better. The Senate late Thursday adopted a $59 billion version. However, a scheduled mark-up in the Appropriations Committee of a more expansive House version was abruptly cancelled later in the day. Members there reportedly are concerned about the bill’s costs, which are not offset.

Hopefully the events will convince leaders in Washington that the wheels have come off their strategy of ignoring the mounting debt and continuing to deficit finance initiatives by labeling them “jobs” bills and “emergency” spending. But there still seems a long way to travel to get legislators to actually pay for their priorities.

The Senate Thursday set aside two amendments to the supplemental from Senator Tom Coburn (R-OK) that would each have fully offset the cost of the bill by rescinding spending elsewhere. And the body never got a chance to vote on a pending amendment from Senators Jeff Sessions (R-AL) and Claire McCaskill (D-MO) to institute a three year discretionary spending cap. The proposal has consistently received broad, bipartisan support and the sponsors made adjustments to achieve 60 votes. It is a shame that the Senate found time to vote on border security amendments, but had no time for a more germane proposal as it considered adding to the mounting debt.

Like many trips this weekend, the drive for fiscal responsibility will be a long one with many stops along the way.