Washington – Whether, and how, Congress comes to an agreement on a massive spending bill to fund the federal government will impact Connecticut in several ways.
The short-term bill that kept the federal government from shutting down shortly before Christmas will expire on Jan. 19.
But there’s no indication the White House and congressional Democrats and Republicans can come to an agreement on an “omnibus bill” that would fund the federal government until the end of the federal fiscal year.
If Congress can’t strike a deal before Jan. 19, the government would shut down, discontinuing all services not deemed essential, freezing research initiatives, closing National Park facilities and sending home nearly half of the federal workforce.
A shutdown would hurt Connecticut – the last one, in 2013, shuttered several Head Start facilities and resulted in furloughs in the state’s defense industry.
Another short-term spending bill that allowed Congress more time to try to reach an agreement also would have negative effects on the state. These short-term “continuing resolutions” or CRs, that are now keeping the federal government functioning limit spending at federal agencies to last year’s levels.
That means the Pentagon can’t begin any new projects, or ramp up existing ones, without a new budget, something that is likely to impact Connecticut’s defense contractors.
“It all adds up,” said Rep. Joe Courtney, D-2nd District. “These repetitive CR’s have a corrosive effect on the hiring and pace of work. Limping along on these increments is really disruptive.”
There have been 15 short-term spending bills, or CRs, in the last five years.
Courtney, a member of the House Armed Services Committee, said he met with Electric Boat executives last week and “the first topic” raised was the status of the omnibus bill.
Courtney said the lack of long-term funding for the Pentagon also is affecting other defense contractors, including Sikorsky and Pratt & Whitney, which need “stable horizons.”
He said Electric Boat is finishing its repair work on the USS Montpelier and is looking for new repair and maintenance jobs. “There’s clearly more work out there for the Navy, but it can’t make those kinds of decisions when they are operating under a CR,” he said. “It’s frustrating to everyone.”
Members of Congress are also seeking funding for local projects in the new budget bill and are frustrated that they don’t know whether they will receive it without a budget bill in hand.
Last week Courtney was the lead author of a letter to U.S. House appropriators urging additional funding for the nation’s submarine program, both for the new Columbia-class nuclear ballistic-missile submarine and for Virginia-class attack submarines, both of which are being built by Electric Boat.
“While the undersea industrial base is preparing to begin work on the new Columbia-class submarine, we believe that there is sufficient capacity to increase production of the Virginia-class submarine to help meet demand for undersea capabilities in the fleet, ramp up an efficient workforce to tackle Columbia, and boost our supplier network,” Courtney and his colleagues wrote. “It is vital that Congress send a clear signal of support to our fleet commanders and our industrial base by ensuring that the final funding package provides as robust an investment as possible in our undersea fleet.”
While congressional committees have authorized a boost in submarine spending — and in spending on F-35 fighter jets and Sikorsky helicopters, Courtney said, “we’re just not going to know” whether proposed increases in these defense programs will happen until there’s a deal on the budget.
‘Dreamers’ are the linchpin
The impasse over the budget also has put the future of a health care program that serves about 17,000 Connecticut kids at stake.
Long-term funding for the Children’s Health Insurance Program, known as CHIP, or HUSKY B in Connecticut, has been caught in the partisan budget debate. The program covers children whose families earn too much money to qualify for Medicaid, but would otherwise struggle to cover their children.
The Connecticut Department of Social Services says money for the program will run out at the end of February without new congressional action.
Federal grants that help the state’s community health care clinics will soon run out too, and funding for that program also has become a victim of the budget debate.
New money to help victims of last year’s natural disasters, including Hurricane Maria that devastated Puerto Rico, and an effort to shore up the Affordable Care Act are also budget bargaining chips.
But it’s the future of hundreds of thousands of undocumented youths – about 10,000 in Connecticut — that has emerged as the major sticking point.
“If the Democrats want to shut down the government because they can’t get amnesty for illegal immigrants, then they’re going to have to defend those actions to the American people,” Republican Senator Tom Cotton of Arkansas said Sunday on ABC’s “This Week” program.
Trump has stripped the “dreamers” — who were brought to the United States illegally as infants or young children by their parents — of the protection from deportation they received from former President Barack Obama.
Trump said he wanted Congress to pass a law that would protect the immigrant youth, but Congress has failed to act. Over the weekend, the president reiterated his campaign pledge to build a wall along the U.S.-Mexico border, warning that any plan to address the fate of dreamers won’t happen without it.
“We want the wall,” Trump said Saturday at Camp David. “The wall is going to happen or we’re not going to have (protections for dreamers).” Democrats have balked at funding that wall. But the party is split over whether to force a government shutdown to protect the dreamers.
Democratic votes are needed for the GOP to pass a budget bill in the Senate, because the legislation could be derailed unless it has the support of at least 60 senators, and the GOP has a slim, 51-vote majority.
Sen. Chris Murphy, D-Conn., said he did not know if he would vote for a spending bill or a new CR that failed to include a deal that protected the undocumented youths.
“It sort of depends on what is going on with the negotiations,” he said.
Murphy, however, thinks a compromise over the dreamers can be reached between Democrats and Republicans. Democrats could, for example, agree to fund other types of border security, and the GOP might accept that in return for protection for dreamers.
“(Donald Trump) is the only one who wants the wall,” Murphy said. “Republicans don’t want the wall.”
While Murphy is optimistic there will not be a shutdown, he said it’s possible. “I don’t want to underestimate the dysfunction at the White House,” he said.
Funding the federal government was once a task accomplished through bipartisanship and because of common interests. But it has become more difficult in recent years because of increased partisanship in Congress and the growing national debt.
In 2011, Congress created a “super committee” charged with finding $1.2 trillion in debt reduction over the following decade. That ended in a stalemate, putting in place automatic across-the-board spending cuts, known as sequestration, that were split evenly between defense and domestic programs.
Sequestration has never been allowed to go into effect, however, because lawmakers in both parties said it would cut key programs too much.
So once again, Democrats and Republicans must agree on legislation to lift the spending caps before they can even start negotiating the specific details of a bill to fund the government.
That is likely to further diminish the chance Congress will meet its Jan. 19 deadline.