In the next few days most of Capitol Hill’s workforce will return from the summer recess and most efforts will be focused on winning reelection and ensuring the primacy of whichever tribe one favors.
I spent a few hours last week chatting with lobbyists and the few Hill staff I could reach to get some read on what is the likely course of events through Christmas. (Remember, there are those elections coming in November.) The basics: a clean Continuing Resolution is probable (meaning that the government will be funded through at least the elections and no partisan policy riders will be attached by either side); hope appears to be rising among both defense Democrats and Republicans that some fix can be found to avert sequestration, which returns in force in fiscal 2016; the National Defense Authorization Act (the defense policy bill) probably isn’t going to get done in September, even though Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid said in late July that he thinks he can get it to the floor this month.
“We’ve heard that from the Senate before,” a skeptical House Republican said of Reid’s suggestion — which is all it can be in the proud Senate, where everyone has a veto. “I think the chairman [Rep. Buck McKeon] would welcome the Senate addressing it in September and then have a conference with passage later in the fall. But he’s prepared to look at other paths to passage… like we did last year.” Those who dig through every utterance and printed page related to the NDAA will remember that the bill was rushed out through a pretty unique process last year, where the chairmen and ranking members of the two committees sat down, negotiated a compromise bill and pretty much handed it to members, saying: it’s good, please pass it. And they did.
With an election facing them, neither Democrats nor Republicans want to be blamed for failing to pass a defense policy bill for the first time in 54 years while the world seems to get hotter with each passing week, so the bill will probably pass.
A GOP lobbyist is optimistic the Senate can start work on the bill in September, “…but I’m not sure they can get the NDAA done by then.” Given that Congress has about two weeks in which to do their work before scampering home to get reelected (or reminded of their essential fungibility) getting anything done will be tough — especially with the crises in Ukraine and the Middle East raising their very ugly heads at the same time.
The GOP lobbyist believes passing the CR and reauthorizing the Export-Import Bank will be the top goals of Congress, so that increases pressure on the NDAA even more.
As to the hope for a fix of sequestration, the GOP aide points to a “shift” in conservative media and some lawmakers over the last two months in favor of scrapping sequestration instead of their heedless rush to mangle any pretense at rational budgetary planning.
Sen. Carl Levin, outgoing chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, spoke of rising hopes for a deal of some sort. “I’m hoping it will happen during September or during the lame-duck” session in November and December, he told CongressWatch. Levin, wise and wily man that he is, has long been optimistic about some sort of a deal because, in part, that’s how you pressure the other side. But it’s also because he is an optimist who believes his colleagues usually do the right thing — in the end.
The GOP lobbyist, echoing several others who wouldn’t speak for quotation, was skeptical of any break in the logjam. It certainly seems the GOP is less mad than it has been the last few years — the lobbyist said “it would be madness for us to try and shut down the government again” — but the press of business on the Hill and the pressures of the election mean “it’s not going to be addressed before the election.”
Then we must endure the post-electoral show. If the GOP wins the Senate — unlikely, but possible — there may actually be a better chance to fix sequestration, I think. Remember Nixon and China. Political cover is always helpful when trying to do something controversial.