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At the intersection of a debt-ceiling mess and a shutdown threat

Congress has to deal with raising the debt ceiling, preventing a shutdown, and lifting budget caps -- at roughly the same time.
Two men stand on the plaza of the U.S. Capitol Building as storm clouds fill the sky, June 13, 2013 in Washington, DC.
Two men stand on the plaza of the U.S. Capitol Building as storm clouds fill the sky, June 13, 2013 in Washington, DC.

I've long thought of debt-ceiling fights like a scheduled root canal on the calendar: it's one of those unpleasant things you know is coming, but you'd prefer not to think too much about it until it's absolutely necessary.

Earlier this week, the Bipartisan Policy Center insisted it's absolutely necessary. The think tank concluded that federal tax revenue is falling short of projections, so the time we thought we had in advance of the next debt-ceiling increase is evaporating. In fact, the group said the borrowing limit would probably have to be addressed by early September -- not October or November, as previously estimated.

As it turns out, the Bipartisan Policy Center isn't alone in its concerns. The Hill reported this morning that lawmakers are "growing anxious that they might have to vote to raise the nation's debt ceiling in a matter of weeks."

Lawmakers had hoped they would be able to avoid the politically painful vote to raise the debt ceiling until the fall -- and that it could be packaged with other legislation to fund the government and set budget caps on spending.But that could be much more difficult if Treasury's ability to prevent the government from going over its borrowing limit ends in mid-September -- just days after lawmakers would be set to return from their summer recess.

At some point, we should all probably have a conversation about why federal tax revenue is proving to be a problem -- have I mentioned lately that the Republican tax plan was a bad idea? -- but in the short term, the prospect of an ugly train wreck is coming into sharper focus.

Because increasing the debt ceiling isn't the only related challenge on Congress' late-summer to-do list.

Not only does it now appear that lawmakers will have to raise the debt limit in September, that will coincide with the expiration of existing federal spending that keeps federal operations running. Politico reported yesterday that the odds of yet another government shutdown are "skyrocketing," adding, "There's been next to no progress on a deal to lift mandatory government spending caps that take effect in January, so aides in both parties have said they believe that a shutdown is becoming more and more likely."

The Washington Post recently reported, "GOP leaders have spent months cajoling President Trump in favor of a bipartisan budget deal that would fund the government and raise the limit on federal borrowing this fall, but their efforts have yet to produce a deal.... The GOP dysfunction — coupled with a new House Democratic majority with its own priorities — leaves the sides much farther apart than they were at this point in last year's budget process, which ended in a record-long government funding lapse."

We'll dig into this in more detail as the deadlines draw closer, but there are three basic elements to keep an eye on: Congress and the White House will have to (1) agree to raise the debt ceiling; (2) fund government operations; and (3) lift budget caps that will otherwise kick in automatically (thanks to that darned sequester law from 2011) and cut more than $100 billion from domestic and military priorities.

The stakes are high, and given what we've seen in recent weeks, there's been little evidence of progress. No wonder lawmakers are starting to feel "anxious."