Snow begins to gather on a statue outside the Capitol Building in Washington, DC, Dec. 10, 2013.
Jim Watson/AFP/Getty

Crunch time for Congress


The threat of another crippling government shutdown loomed large as a small bipartisan group of congressional leaders worked toward a budget deal that the Senate is expected to vote on this week.

“Government has to function, and we saw the specter of two govenment shutdowns in 2014… I don’t think that’s good for anybody,” Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wis) said on Meet The Press on Sunday, alongside Sen. Patty Murray (D-WA), his democratic counterpart in leading the budget talks.

Though the two were able to reach a deal passed by the House, the 113th session of Congress – one of the most bruising and dysfunctional in years – still has a week of battles ahead.

The House has finished its business for the year, leaving things in the hands of the Senate for the final week of legislative business.

The Senate is tasked with confirming several presidential nominees, including new heads of the Federal Reserve and the Department of Homeland Security. It is also expected to vote on both the budget and a compromise defense bill. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV) has filed to hold a cloture vote on the budget bill Tuesday. 

President Obama has seen nine of his nominees confirmed since Wednesday. No longer able to block nominees with filibusters, Republicans are instead resorting to slowing down the process. Reid said Thursday that those tactics were “wasting all this time” that should be spent on “substantive issues” like funding the government and the military.

Votes are scheduled Monday to confirm Anne Patterson as an assistant secretary of state for Near Eastern affairs and Jeh Johnson as the new head of the Department of Homeland Security. Votes are also likely on Janet Yellen’s nomination to head the Federal Reserve and on Roberts Wilkins, another nominee to the U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia.

After Monday’s votes on Patterson and Johnson, focus will shift to the budget compromise.

Without a deal, another government shutdown looms in January. There would also be no relief from the across the board spending cuts known as the sequester that have wreaked havoc on budgets for everything from food stamps to military training.

Despite the threat of a shutdown, Democrats are still struggling to collect enough votes to pass the Murray-Ryan deal.

Illinois’ Dick Durbin, the Senate’s second most powerful Democrat, said Sunday on “Face the Nation” that they still need “about eight more Republicans to come our way” to pass the compromise.

“We have a handful,” Durbin said, “but we need more. Some are still thinking about it.”

This week the Senate will also have a second chance to pass a defense authorization bill, something they failed to do before their Thanksgiving recess. The House passed a compromise bill, negotiated with the Senate, last week, and thanks to the fast-track process under which it was approved, Senators cannot add controversial amendments that would endanger it.

The first attempt to pass the defense bill failed when Republican senators refused to approve the bill unless they were given the right to tack on amendments dealing with issues like Iran sanctions.

The compromise measure includes changes to military sexual assault policy and the transfer of prisoners from Guantanamo Bay. A defense authorization bill has passed every year for the past 51 years.

Here too, the Senate could struggle to reach the 60 vote threshold needed to cut off debate and have a vote.

While Congress has not yet reached a final compromise on a farm bill, yet another legislative priority that could not be dealt with this year, leaders were confident last week that votes on the bill could happen shortly after the New Year’s recess.

One issue that will not be addressed before the end of the year is the debt limit.

Paul Ryan indicated on Sunday that the GOP would be willing to once again hold the debt limit hostage to win concessions.

“We as a caucus – along with our Senate counterparts – are going to meet and discuss what it is we’re going to want out of the debt limit,” Ryan said on Fox News Sunday. “We don’t want nothing out of this debt limit. We’re going to decide what it is we’re going to accomplish out of this debt limit fight.”

Treasury Secretary Jack Lew has not yet said when the U.S. will once again exhaust its borrowing authority, but it will be within the first few months of 2014.

Crunch time for Congress