Washington — When Congress returns from summer recess, it will once again find itself on the brink of disaster.
Unless Congress acts, the federal government will shut down Oct. 1, and the nation will run out of cash to pay its bills by mid-October. Congress must figure out a way to avoid these disasters, and under the likely fallout of a U.S. strike on Syria.
There is also a list of “must do” legislation pending, including a farm bill that will determine how many people will be able to receive food stamps and whether Connecticut dairy farmers get help so they can continue to operate.
The 113th Congress has been tied in partisan knots since it was gaveled in in January, but as unfinished business piles up and key deadlines loom, intractability has increased, not decreased.
“I’ve never seen anything like this. Never.” said Rep. Rosa DeLauro, D-3rd District. “Twenty-three years I’ve served in the House, and I’ve never seen anything like this.”
Rep. Joe Courtney, D-2nd District, said, “We’re all holding our breath to see if Congress can stop scaring everybody.”
Connecticut’s House delegation, all Democrats, usually play a minor role in the Republican-led House of Representatives. But that may change.
Members of Connecticut’s congressional delegation and other Democrats may pivot from their roles of trying to block GOP initiatives to providing key votes for House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio.
Since there’s little hope of an agreement about a $3.5 trillion federal budget before Oct. 1, the beginning of the next federal fiscal year, Boehner has indicated he’ll introduce a bill after Congress reconvenes Sept. 9 that would extend current funding levels for the federal government for a few weeks or months. A “continuing resolution” or “CR” has been used with increasing frequency as Congress has become less and less able to meet deadlines.
But a group of about 80 Republicans say they won’t support a continuing resolution or any type of budget bill unless it defunds Obamacare.
Because President Barack Obama and the Democratic-controlled Senate are almost certain to reject such demands, the standoff likely would result in a partial shutdown of the federal government, similar to those that occurred in 1995 and 1996.
Those previous government shutdowns hurt the GOP politically, and Boehner isn’t likely to want another. So his only option is to hope to replace defecting Republican votes with those of Democrats.
That means Boehner may have to abandon the “Hastert rule,” named for former House Speaker Dennis Hastert who determined that a bill only could only be considered if it commands the support of a majority of House Republicans.
Boehner violated the Hastert rule when he pressed for approval of the Hurricane Sandy relief bill and the last time Congress raised the debt limit.
If he’s forced to do it again, he’ll need the votes of Connecticut Democrats.
“I think (Boehner) is going to have to do it again,” said Rep. Jim Himes, D-4th District. “The only time this Congress is able to govern is when he violates the Hastert rule.”
Sen. Chris Murphy, D-Conn., said he thinks there will be no problem approving a temporary extension of the federal budget in the Senate.
“I think cooler heads will prevail there, but I don’t know about the House,” Murphy said.
Like Himes, Murphy also predicted that Boehner will have to break with GOP tradition.
“The only way for his party to survive is for him to abandon the Hastert rule,” he said.
Since the continuing resolution would include the sequester, or across-the-board spending cuts implemented in March, voting for it may be difficult for some Connecticut lawmakers.
“A straight CR is a real problem,” Courtney said.
A member of the House Armed Services Committee whose district includes the New London submarine base and Electric Boat, Courtney is concerned about continuing sequester cuts to the defense budget.
Budget cuts are already being felt in Connecticut’s defense industry and have prompted Electric Boat to warn as many as 500 employees that they may have to be let go.
DeLauro is also concerned about defense cuts, but she wants a “balanced approach” to the budget that also protects social programs.
Himes said he might have to bite the bullet and vote for a CR to avoid a government shutdown.
“I’d rather vote for a comprehensive budget deal that does not include the sequester, but I’m also very aware that all of us have to be prepared to stretch,” he said.
Then there’s the debt ceiling, which must be raised by mid-October so the nation can continue to pay its bills.
Boehner has said he’s ready for a “whale of a fight” on the issue because he wants new budget cuts to offset new government borrowing. That’s a deal killer for Democrats.
Himes said defaulting on the nation’s debts would cause a worldwide financial crisis.
“In any rational world … Congress would say, ‘We need to get this done gracefully,’” Himes said. “But that’s not the case here.”
Other unfinished business includes a final farm bill that sets the federal budget for food stamps and reauthorizes all agriculture programs. Connecticut’s dairy farmers hope that bill reforms the federal dairy program to make it easier for them to stay in business.
Work on must do legislation may be complicated if Obama orders a strike on Syria in reaction to reports the nation’s government used chemical weapons against opponents. Many lawmakers will insist on using scarce time — Congress is scheduled to be in session only nine days in September — debating the issue.
On Friday, Courtney joined other lawmakers who urged Boehner to cut the remaining days of summer recess and reconvene the House immediately.
“Syria, sequestration and a looming government shutdown all require our immediate and unwavering attention,” he said.
Gun control advocates like Murphy wanted a comprehensive gun control bill that failed in the Senate earlier this year to get another chance. But Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid has said gun control isn’t likely to come up again until next year.
“I know that every day that goes by the chances are slimmer to bring it up this year, but I’m not giving up,” Murphy said.