Mark Trahant: Fight over spending bill quietly moves to Senate

The House, as expected, passed the Continuing Resolution to fund government for the rest of the year. H.R. 933 now moves to the Senate for consideration.

There is a quiet, but important, debate ahead. The $984 billion spending bill locks into place the sequester amounts for the remainder of the year (although it opens up a little flexibility for the Defense Department and veterans programs).

The White House has said it is “deeply concerned” with this continuing resolution. The Office of Management and Budget put it this way: “While the Administration is pleased to see that H.R. 933 is consistent with the mutually agreed upon budget framework in the Budget Control Act of 2011 (BCA), the bill raises concerns about the Government's ability to protect consumers, avoid deep cuts in critical services that families depend on, and implement critical domestic priorities such as access to quality and affordable health care.”

So in ordinary times, the Senate would amend the bill and protect those programs identified by OMB, protecting consumers, avoiding deep cuts in critical services, and funding health care initiatives.

But there are three obstacles going forward. The first is that within the Senate there will need to be 60 votes. So a minority, sticking together, can block the majority from adding those protections called for by the White House. Then, also in the Senate, there are conservatives that argue this budget doesn’t defund the Affordable Care Act, and, finally, when a compromise eventually emerges from the Senate, it will still have to pass the House again. (Unless the House bill is adopted exactly as is.)

The Senate’s plan for a continuing resolution will come from the Senate Appropriations Committee, where the chair, Barbara Mikulski, a Democraat from Maryland, has said the bill will most likely add more flexibility to manage the sequester cuts for domestic programs. This proposal would help tribal governments, school districts, clinics, make budgeting changes to limit the impact of sequester.

But she will have to tread lightly if she wants to sell those changes to a majority of Republicans. It’s particularly difficult this year because the Republican minority leader Mitch McConnell is running for re-election in Kentucky. (Still, he said, he has no interest in shutting down the government over this spending bill.)

However another wing of Republicans are promising an all-out fight over the House spending bill. New Texas Senator Ted Cruz and Utah Senator Mike Lee say they want the Affordable Care Act defunded. Lee said: “Defunding Obamacare is essential to restoring economic growth. At this time of fiscal turmoil, Congress shouldn’t borrow more money to pay for something we cannot afford. Although I would prefer a full repeal of Obamacare, we should at minimum delay its implementation until our country is experiencing real, sustained economic growth.”

It will be interesting to see if this more radical approach gets any traction, especially with McConnell. (This was one reason why the House leadership wanted the continuing resolution done fast so there wouldn’t be enough time for the conservative network to win votes.)

So what does this all mean for Indian Country? The best case is a bill that funds the government that provides more flexibility in how that money is spent. But the sequester is likely to continue through September 30 (and the spending caps under the Budget Control Act for the next decade).

And the worst case? That Cruz wins enough support to block any continuing resolution that funds the Affordable Care Act. If that happens the wheels come off, and the government will go through another shutdown.

Beyond the continuing resolution, President Barack Obama met with the “common sense caucus” of Republican Senators and is hoping for an bipartisan longterm spending deal. The President will also lunch with Paul Ryan next week, who shortly will release his own longterm budget plan.

Meanwhile I will be off for a few days for a short vacation. But I should be posting again toward the end of next week.

Mark Trahant is a writer, speaker and Twitter poet. He lives in Fort Hall, Idaho, and is a member of The Shoshone-Bannock Tribes. Join the discussion about austerity. A new Facebook page has been set up at:

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