- The Washington Times - Tuesday, July 7, 2015

Congress returned from its July 4 recess Tuesday fumbling for a way to avert a second government shutdown in three years, as GOP majorities forged ahead with spending bills that President Obama has threatened to veto, saying they’re insufficient to meet the nation’s needs and are beholden to misguided spending caps.

House GOP leaders say they’re finally getting Congress to work the way it’s supposed to, clearing six of the 12 appropriations bills for fiscal 2016 after years of budgetary dysfunction on Capitol Hill. They’re set to debate the seventh this week — a bill to fund the Interior Department, Environmental Protection Agency and related agencies — even as Senate Democrats move to block spending legislation in the upper chamber.

The White House and its Democratic allies have warned Republicans it is time to lift so-called sequester caps the parties agreed to years ago, saying any boost to defense spending should be matched with increased spending on domestic programs and that the blunt sequestration spending ceilings were never supposed to take effect anyway.

“It is not wise to pursue the sequester numbers. That’s bad for our country,” said House Minority Whip Steny H. Hoyer, Maryland Democrat, saying it is up to GOP Speaker John A. Boehner to kick-start negotiations on a broad spending deal before the Oct. 1 deadline.

Congress has struggled in recent years to complete the annual appropriations process, relying on short-term spending resolutions instead, so Republican leaders wanted to get a head start on the dozen spending bills that must wind through the committee process before hitting the floor.

But Democrats cried foul when the GOP decided to use an account meant to fund overseas wars to get around sequester caps and match Mr. Obama’s request for defense funding — without proposing an equal boost in domestic spending.

The impasse leaves Congress on a collision course with little time to spare before the fiscal year ends Sept. 30, as lawmakers debate a highway bill, a rewrite of the No Child Left Behind education law and a possible vote on a nuclear agreement with Iran ahead of a lengthy August recess.

House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy said Democrats are seeking unacceptable tax increases to pay for new spending, while other top Republicans believe Democrats will simply block anything the GOP majority puts forward.

“The only people stopping the appropriations process are Democrats who filibustered the troop-funding bill and have threatened to block all spending bills,” said Don Stewart, a spokesman for Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, Kentucky Republican.

Not to be outdone, Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid accused the GOP majority Tuesday of relishing each deadline crisis, citing the Senate’s failure so far to reauthorize the highway trust fund by July 31 and the expiration of the Export-Import Bank’s charter last month over Democratic objections.

“In less than three months, unless we act, the government will shut down,” the Nevada Democrat said. “To avoid that, we need a budget agreement between the two parties. That’s going to take time and lots of work. But, to this point, the deadline seems to be meaningless to my Republican colleagues.”

Two years ago, Sen. Ted Cruz, Texas Republican and 2016 presidential contender, led an effort to defund Obamacare that led to a 16-day partial government shutdown. Members of the GOP said it tarnished the party’s image, although the glitch-laden launch of HealthCare.gov quickly reshuffled the political narrative that fall, and Republicans scored big gains in the 2014 midterm vote.

Analysts said that unless both sides start talking, another shutdown showdown is imminent.

“Republican leaders don’t have the votes to override a veto, so they will have to accept some of Obama’s priorities,” said Darrell West, director of governance studies at Brookings Institution. “If the two sides are willing to negotiate, we won’t have a government shutdown.”

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