Federal Relations

Welcome Back Congress!

Congress returns to work today after a long summer break. When they left town five weeks ago, it looked like the legislative fall schedule would focus on domestic issues: the budget and debt limit, immigration, health care reform, and maybe even education or higher education issues. Now it appears that most of the nine working days in September (that’s right, just nine working days!) will be focused on foreign policy as Congress decides how best to handle the crisis in Syria.

This change in agenda is not all bad. Because of the Syria issue, Congress will likely approve a continuing resolution – for 60 or 90 days – without much of the anticipated drama about government shutdown as the federal fiscal year comes to a close on September 30th. The CR is expected to continue discretionary spending into FY14, likely at the current rate of roughly $988 billion annually (level funded). The stopgap is not expected to contain any controversial policy riders, but could carry some technical provisions and reauthorize some expiring programs.

Movement on the CR effectively ends any chance lawmakers had of sending stand-alone FY14 spending bills to the President’s desk for signature. While most of the annual spending bills have been approved by both the House and Senate appropriations committees, none have cleared Congress. The best hope for individual spending bills clearing is that they could be bundled together in a year-end omnibus funding measure later this year. A possible complication is the need for Congress to increase the federal debt limit to enable further borrowing and prevent defaulting on loans. That needs to happen by early to mid-October according to recent Administration comments. Given that the CR will likely run through November or December, it looks like the big domestic fiscal debate will come in October or November instead of September – barring any further foreign policy snafus.