When the new 114th Congress starts up on January 3, there will be at least 52 and possibly 54 Senate Republicans in the majority. On the House side Republicans may have at least 243 pending more than a dozen races where votes were still being counted. They went into the election with 233 seats. In the Senate, two races, with Senator Mary Landrieu (D-LA) in a December run-off election and Senator Mark Begich (D-AK) behind pending a final vote of outstanding ballots, may increase the Republican Senate number from 45 seats.
There are several issues that the new Republican leadership will have to deal with and front and center is a long-term budget agreement. Last year there was a bipartisan agreement that covered the 2014 and 2015 fiscal years but that agreement is due to expire. Short of a new long-term budget deal across-the-board cuts will be implemented again starting FY 2016. Since the Republican leadership has taken tax increases generally off the board, it will be a real challenge to protect domestic spending from severe cuts with no new tax revenue and a desire on the part of some to protect the Defense Department from further reductions.
The need to replace the budget deal and the list of other issues listed in an earlier article may result in a budget reconciliation act and some congressional staff have suggested the use of such a measure. Under a budget reconciliation, the Budget Committees of each house would give instructions to key committees to find a long-term “savings” or cuts to mandatory and entitlement programs. What that process does however is offer the Republican leadership a way to overcome the Senate filibuster.
In a reconciliation cuts could be made to a number of entitlement programs including Medicaid, Medicare, the SNAP program and most important Title IV-E foster care and adoption assistance. Under a reconciliation the process starts the congressional leadership would be working through the budget committees in determining how much will be cut by each committee. Once the specific committees make their cuts, they are bundled together into one bill that requires only 51 votes to pass the Senate. It also limits amendments and time to debate. It can be a fast track in the Senate and in fact was the tool used by Republican leadership in 1996 to enact the TANF law.
Reconciliation could be important to the child welfare community since a major package of child welfare changes could be forced through as part of a much larger package of cuts. In a reconciliation package that includes dramatic changes to child welfare funding such as time limits in foster care and the elimination of the Social Services Block Grant (SSBG), those changes would be combined with possible changes and cuts in other programs such as Medicaid, SNAP, higher education all put together into a bill that would be subject to a debate time limit. Under such a scenario, changes to child welfare could rank low on debate priority and time.
Closely related to any budget agreement and the use of reconciliation is the appropriations process. A budget resolution which creates a reconciliation process would also dictate future spending, tying both cuts to mandatory and entitlement spending to budget caps for future appropriations. That would then set in place the FY 2016 appropriations process.
There has been talk by Republican leadership that they will use the appropriations process as a way to stop the President in many areas of policy by tying various riders or legislative language to appropriations bills. One challenge may be the ability of Congress to pass appropriations bills. The last time the Congress was able to pass each of the 13 appropriations bills individually and get them to the President before the October 1 start of the new fiscal year was 1994. That was when Bill Clinton was President and the Democrats controlled the House and the Senate before that year’s historic election of a Republican Congress. The only other time in the recent past two decades in which appropriations were complete by October 1, was 1996 again under President Bill Clinton but this time under the new Republican Congress. In that year they did not pass all of the 13 appropriations bill individually but bundled several of the bills together in an omnibus bill. Since that point Congress has reduced the number of appropriations from 13 to 12 but has been unable to pass those 12 bills separately. Instead they have adopted various CR’s.
Another challenge for the new Congress will be the need to raise the debt ceiling which is expected to take place sometime in the spring or summer. Since raising the debt ceiling has once again become a controversial matter it usually is incumbent on the majority party to find all the votes within their party to pass such a debt ceiling. Some members of the Republican Party have taken exception to voting for such an increase.
As a backdrop to all this legislating is the 2016 presidential election. With an opening in the presidency there will be many senators considering a run for the office. At least four and possibly five Republican senators have indicated an interest and there has been speculation on at least two Democrats. If the states of Iowa and New Hampshire get into a contest with other states to move their primaries and caucuses earlier we could once again see a set-up similar to 2008 when the first votes were cast on January 3, 2008 with additional states lining up their voting within the first few months of the new year. Similar to 2008 that could mean a vigorous presidential campaign is in full swing by June 2015 resulting in absent senators, limited schedules and test votes.