Congressional Budget Fight Looms in December

Disaster spending could be another sticking point in looming fight to keep the government funded.

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The so-called super committee is finally finished, leaving its unresolved business for 2012. But the year is hardly over for Congress. When lawmakers return from their Thanksgiving recess, they'll have several knotty issues to resolve, and first up will be another possible showdown over how to keep the federal government funded. Just as in the near-shutdown this September, the sticking point may be disaster funding.

While most of official D.C. fretted about what the super committee would be doing, the appropriations committees in Congress quietly went about their business. On November 17, Congress passed a bill that will keep all of the government funded through December 16, and will fund certain departments—such as Justice, Agriculture, and Housing and Urban Development—until September 2013. Before the end of the year, Congress will likely have to pass legislation to keep everything else funded through next year. And, as in the past, there will likely be resistance from conservative and Tea Party Republicans concerned that the government hasn't slashed spending enough.

[Super committee failure could haunt Obama.]

Because the parties agreed to yearly budget caps as part of the debt ceiling compromise passed this summer, in theory they should have less to fight about. Both Democratic and Republican leaders have advocated sticking to the caps. But a growing minority of conservative Republicans are advocating further cuts. More than 100 Republicans voted against the November 17 budget bill. "We have a duty to be unwavering in our commitment to get Washington back on track and protect the taxpayer," Arizona Republican Rep. David Schweikert said, explainig his "no" vote on the budget.

And with disasters such as Hurricane Irene pushing up the spending for the 2012 fiscal year, more Republicans are worrying that they haven't followed through with their pledge to slash government spending. The debt ceiling agreement set disaster spending, as well as spending for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, outside the discretionary caps, so the increased spending doesn't violate the deal the parties struck this summer. But the disaster spending, more than $2 billion so far, could mean that the government spends more in fiscal year 2012 than in 2011, even though the agreement set a smaller amount. The difference is miniscule compared with the entire federal budget, but it's an important symbolic issue for lawmakers who feel they were sent to Washington to scale back spending. "It's an issue for a lot of people," says one Republican congressional aide. "There is an appetite among Republicans for cutting more." Small government advocacy groups are also still pushing GOP lawmakers to further slash spending. Barney Keller, spokesman for the influential anti-tax group Club for Growth, blasted Republicans for agreeing to caps that are higher than the levels set by an earlier budget plan, proposed by Rep. Paul Ryan, which most Republicans supported earlier in 2011. "I think it would be very hypocritical for the people in power to spend above the level set by the Ryan budget," Keller says.

While Congress considers the budget, it will have a whole host of other issues to resolve, which may also make the budget picture more complicated. President Obama is strongly pushing for an extension of the temporary payroll tax cut and long-term unemployment insurance, which Republicans have been cool to. So far, Democrats haven't yet figured out a strategy for how to push those issues through Congress, but one option may be to try to wrap it into the budget fight. In addition, there are various Medicare and tax adjustments that Congress normally easily passes each year, but which may be more difficult in the current partisan environment.

Twitter: @AlexParkerDC