It's getting only scant attention as Capitol Hill focuses on the expiring payroll tax cut, but Congress only has 11 days to complete its budget and keep most of the government funded through next year. The issue of disaster relief funding—which nearly blew up the budget in September—is threatening once again to gum up negotiations as the deadline nears. While party leaders insist that they'll get things finished before the Dec. 16 deadline, the issue highlights, once again, the tension between the GOP leaders and increasingly skeptical rank-and-file Republicans.
In theory, there's no reason why the parties shouldn't be able to get together and pass a budget. Both sides agreed to a $1.043 trillion discretionary spending limit in the legislation to raise the debt ceiling this summer, and leaders from both parties have promised to stick to that level. But the billions of dollars that the government is expected to spend this year and next to aid recovery efforts for Hurricane Irene and the tornado in Joplin, Mo. are one of the issues which have yet to be resolved, says a Republican aide in the appropriations process. According to the debt ceiling legislation, Congress can spend $11.3 billion over the $1.043 trillion cap in disaster relief without breaking the agreement. But whether it's within the letter of the law or not, the idea of spending more than $1.05 trillion—the 2011 federal discretionary budget in 2011, minus war spending—is a tough pill for conservatives to swallow. Many feel they came to Congress with a mandate to scale back spending, and continue to question whether the GOP leadership shares their passion for reining ingovernment. "I'm hugely disappointed. My expectations and hopes were not met," says two-term Wyoming Rep. Cynthia Lummis, who along with Arizona Rep. Jeff Flake wrote to the leadership in September to urge them to look for further spending cuts. Lummis said that 2011 was becoming a "teachable moment" for freshmen who came to Congress with the hopes of slashing the government. "We should have been more honest with these new freshmen about what realistically could be accomplished by leadership, unless they were actually willing to cut."
Republicans and Democrats in the appropriations process say critics are making an apples-to-oranges comparison. Because the federal government didn't appropriate any new disaster funding in fiscal year 2011, it makes that year's total artificially small, and will make 2012's total appropriations seem bigger. And including the draw-down in spending due to the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, the federal government will spend at least $29 billion less this fiscal year. According to a Republican aide close to the appropriations process, the GOP is looking to stay close to or under last year's discretionary amount, even as they try to fund FEMA and other disaster needs. But Democrats aren't too sympathetic to the idea of reneging on the spending limits which both parties agreed to this summer.
For Congress' more conservative members, it feels like deja vu all over again. In April, many voted for a budget bill which kept the government funded until September, but sliced off $39 billion from the 2010 levels. But they felt stung when the Congressional Budget Office revealed that the bill only reduced government outlays by $350 million for the rest of the year. Again, Republican leaders noted that it was an apples-to-oranges comparison, because outlays are often funds which were appropriated years ago, and can't realistically be rescinded. But valid or not, it created the perception that party leaders were using Washington tricks to protect government spending. "I don't think a single conservative who voted for the [debt ceiling deal] did so because they actually supported the level of spending it allows," a Republican aide says. And the skepticism has grown. In November, when Congress passed a partial budget bill funding some agencies through 2012, including the Agriculture and Justice Departments, 101 Republicans voted against the measure, which meant that the bill needed Democratic support to get through. Further defections may be inevitable.