The Spending Bill Must Pass Or Else. Or Else What?
LIANE HANSEN, host:
This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. Im Liane Hansen.
Congress returns to session tomorrow with the looming deadline to fund the entire federal government. Back when midterm campaigns were at their peak, lawmakers punted the annual spending bills until after the elections. Now Congress has to agree on a spending plan by December 3rd or else.
NPR congressional correspondent Andrea Seabrook is in the studio.
And, Andrea, what do you mean that the government is going to run out of money on December 3rd? How does that work, especially the or else part?
(Soundbite of laughter)
ANDREA SEABROOK: Right, or else. I mean, Congress has to fund every single dollar, has to appropriate every single dollar that the federal government spends, whether that dollar is in a Social Security check or whether it is in federal benefits to school teachers, the Congress has to appropriate it. And this year, of all years, the Democratic majority made a decision at some point that they weren't going to pass the annual spending bills.
And so, they have been relying on this strange thing called a Continuing Resolution for all of the fiscal year that we're in - that was since the beginning of October - and theyll probably pass one, as well.
It's a very strange sort of thing for them to say: we're going to keep giving you money at the current levels, but we're not actually going to tell you what the next year's budget is going to be.
HANSEN: Now, you mentioned spending bills, 12 annual spending bills have been punted on. Can Congress pass all those bills?
SEABROOK: No, probably not. Theyll either roll a bunch of them in together into whats called an Omnibus Spending Bill, a gigantic government funding bill that will run until next October.
Or what they may even do is just pass another Continuing Resolution. And what that means is another, you know, law that says we're going to keep giving you money at the current budget levels - every agency in America - but not tell you exactly what the levels are going to be over the course of a year. You see?
And these Continuing Resolutions go up to a certain date. Thats why the December 3rd cutoff is now. I mean, if they were to do nothing, the government would have to shut down, as it did in 1995.
HANSEN: A lot of the incoming Republicans have stressed they intend to cut spending.
HANSEN: Now, what do you expect from them?
SEABROOK: I expect them to talk a lot about cutting spending, come up with a lot of ideas for what could be cut, and maybe pass a lot of spending cuts in January. Now, in this lame-duck session, not going to happen.
HANSEN: The president's debt commission called for major cuts across the board. How does that factor into all of this?
SEABROOK: Well, it's another indication of just how bad the budget situation is. The reason the Democrats haven't been able to pass these bills is because we are in such a huge deficit hole that people aren't quite sure how we're going to figure it out politically.
The draft proposal that came out of the debt commission would make cuts to Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid, raise the retirement age, and end tax incentives that people really rely on - the mortgage interest deduction from your taxes. These are among the most popular programs the government runs. And to cut them, to end them would be just politically unbelievable.
HANSEN: Hmm. And one thing we haven't talked about: The Bush-era tax cuts; they're about to expire.
SEABROOK: And thats really the closest standoff that everybody is watching. Obama wants to extend the tax cuts at lower rates for middle and lower income earners. The Republicans would like to extend them for middle and lower income earners and the wealthy - people in the highest tax brackets. That, of course, would blow another huge hole in the deficit and in our budget. And so there are a lot of questions here about how they figure that one out.
HANSEN: NPR congressional correspondent Andrea Seabrook. Andrea, thanks a lot.
SEABROOK: My pleasure.