Congress Rings In The New Year With Another Budget Deadline

In mid-January, the funding bill that ended the October government shutdown will expire, and congressional budget-writers are still not ready to unveil the trillion-dollar "omnibus" bill to keep the lights on. If the House and Senate cannot come to an agreement soon, lawmakers might have to resort to yet another temporary measure.

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From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Robert Siegel.

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And I'm Audie Cornish.

Congress has until January 15th, that's next Wednesday, to avert yet another government shutdown. When lawmakers finally struck a budget deal last month, it was hailed as a rare act of bipartisanship. But the truce in the budget wars was brief.

NPR's congressional reporter Ailsa Chang is here with more on Congress's attempts to hammer a trillion dollar spending plan. Hey there, Ailsa.

AILSA CHANG, BYLINE: Hey there.

CORNISH: So how low are the chances that these congressional committees will actually strike a deal? By that I mean both chambers, if they'll pass it, and all by January 15th?

(LAUGHTER)

CHANG: Well, at this point, it's looking less and less likely. They were hoping to announce an agreement yesterday. Obviously that didn't happen. I'm told by appropriations staffers there might be something tomorrow. But it's likely that all of this could just slip into the weekend. And if that happens, remember, both chambers will have to vote on this package. And to do that all before Wednesday would be really, really tight. So what's the more realistic outcome at this point? It seems like Congress will likely pass a continuing resolution in the short-term.

That's a stopgap measure that would just hold constant the current spending levels and it would just buy more time to get this bill through both chambers. That legislation would hold for just two or three days. That's really the only extra time lawmakers say they need to hammer everything out.

CORNISH: So I'm getting the sense from that there's no need to start freaking about a possible government shutdown.

(LAUGHTER)

CORNISH: At least at this stage.

CHANG: No, no, no. No one seems to have the appetite for that right now.

CORNISH: Now explain a little more. Why has this gotten so complicated at this point?

CHANG: Well, what they're putting together now is an omnibus bill. Now, this is a package that's hundreds of pages long, thousands of line items. It's the composite of 12 different individual appropriations bills all wrapped up into one, so it touches on every corner of the government. And, you know, that December budget agreement, it only gave Congress a rough framework for spending. What lawmakers have to do now is flesh all of that out.

And I recently talked to a long time House Appropriations staffer. And he said these omnibus bills they're very much like a solar system. There are the small planets and then there are the giants. The small planets - those are the easy budget items, they get more quickly resolved because there tends be more bipartisan agreement. These are things like Defense, Commerce, Transportation, and Military Construction. And Senator Barbara Mikulski, the chair of the Senate Appropriations Committee, she did confirmed that those areas are now figured out. But it's the giant planets, the areas that involve the most prickly policy issues that are really dragging things down at this point.

CORNISH: So what are we talking about here? Which are the giants?

CHANG: Well, the Affordable Care Act. That's the biggest one. And there are some conservative lawmakers who are already saying they're not going to help pass this spending bill unless they see some real restrictions on funding the health care law.

So Senator Tom Harkin of Iowa has had one of the toughest jobs. He's been overseeing all the health-related provisions to the omnibus bill. And I asked him how progress has been going.

SENATOR TOM HARKIN: My staff met until 1 a.m. And they were back at eight this morning. I think we're close - it's just we're working out some language right now.

CHANG: His exact words after that was: We're very, very, very, very, very close. There were like five verys in a row.

And in addition to health care, there're also environmental protection regulations - those are another prickly area. And that's just the tip of the iceberg. Senator Mikulski said this week that lawmakers have requested something like more than 130 policy provisions to attach to the underlying bill. And they relate to all kinds of things: carbon emissions, restricting abortion, limiting the power of the IRS, fiddling with the Dodd-Frank financial reforms. They totally run the gamut.

CORNISH: And with so many in the pipeline, what are some of the more, I guess, extreme or some of the requests that are really going to be a problem for congressional leaders?

CHANG: Well, I talked to a staffer who's close to the ongoing drafting right now, and he told me he's seen some really crazy proposals. Like there's, for example, one proposal that would make it easier to hunt antelope in states like Texas. There's another proposal that would exempt Alabama from standards that try to make school lunches healthier.

So lawmakers have had to sift through all of these various requests and proposals, and figure out what in the end is going to actually pass both chambers of Congress.

CORNISH: That's NPR's congressional reporter Ailsa Chang. Ailsa, thank you.

CHANG: You're welcome.

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