Congress missed the deadline to avert sequestration last week. And now a deadline to prevent a government shutdown at the end of the month is barreling toward lawmakers.
But members of both chambers from both sides of the aisle say they’re confident they can work out a deal to keep the government running. The likely sticking point is how the automatic budget cuts, known as sequestration, will continue to play out.
The House voted Wednesday to approve a short-term spending bill, which drew the ire of many Democrats because it kept sequestration in place for most agencies (providing some cushion for the Defense and Veterans Affairs Departments) and continued a freeze on federal pay. The Obama administration said it had concerns with the bill but stopped short of issuing a full-on veto threat.
House Democratic Whip Steny Hoyer (D-Md.), voted against the House bill but said the administration and House Democrats are “on the same wavelength” when it comes to sequestration.
“The sequester … is a bad policy; it’s an irrational policy,” Hoyer told In Depth with Francis Rose ahead of the House vote. “It cuts without consideration to high-priority or low-priority items.”
Nevertheless, the House bill actually codifies the sequestration cuts into most agencies’ remaining budgets for the year. The bill does grant VA and DoD line-item increases as well as greater flexibility about how to implement the sequester cuts. All other agencies’ budgets would be frozen at 2012 levels and still subject to across-the-board 5 percent cuts.
But Hoyer said the bill could look very different when it emerges from the Senate.
“I think the Senate will shape it in a way that I will like a little better,” he said. “Probably not in a way that I will think is optimum, but as I said … none of us want to shut down government. Shutting down government would be an even worse policy.”
Senate Democrats have indicated they plan to grant other Cabinet agencies, such as the departments of Homeland Security, Transportation and Justice, the same flexibility to manage the sequestration cuts that the House gave to VA and DoD.
As the deadline approaches, lawmakers will also face higher stakes — and a stark choice, Hoyer said.
“I’m not going to get my perfect,” Hoyer said. “What I will get, hopefully, is a bill that I think is supportable and will keep the government open.”
Sequestration — now nearly one week in — is continuing to roil through federal agencies. Furlough notices are being sent to many employees and agency-union negotiations continue apace.
While the short-term spending bill passed by the House would give some agencies more flexibility to manage the cuts, some in Congress say agencies already have the power to reduce discretionary spending.
Sen. Tom Coburn (R-Okla.), the ranking member of the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee, has written to administration officials and Cabinet heads calling on them to “cut the fat” from their budgets before enacting employee furloughs.
Coburn said agencies are not being mindful of their discretionary spending at a time when they are also warning of widespread furloughs.
“We haven’t given [agencies] the flexibility they need to totally accomplish the sequester, but some sound judgment would say you don’t do foolish things at a time when you’re having to lay off critical components,” Coburn told In Depth.
He said a culture change is needed — both in Congress and the agencies.
“I will be the first to admit: The Congress is far worse in this than the federal agencies,” he said. “We have great federal employees that do what Congress tells them to do. And what we’re saying is, it’s time for a whole new culture.”
Coburn said he is confident the Senate will pass a short-term spending bill by March 27 to avert a shutdown.
Beyond that, he predicted both the House and Senate would pass budgets (the latter has not passed one since 2009) and, then, would take up an appropriations bill “in regular order” before the start of fiscal 2014 on Oct. 1.
“So, agencies can actually plan instead of working at three or six months at a time, which totally handicaps effectiveness by the people who are paid to do and carry out these programs,” he added.