This was supposed to be a quiet summer on the fiscal front, with most of the big budget and spending decisions locked in and little for Congress to do but simply follow the script and then leave town to campaign for reelection.
Instead, Washington appears to be back on political war footing, with the White House and congressional Republican and Democratic leaders haggling over everything from the recent wave of unaccompanied minors from Central America illegally crossing into this country to proposed restrictions on coal-fired power plants to averting the bankruptcy of the highway trust fund that threatens to derail many thousands of highway, bridge and mass transit projects this summer.
On Tuesday, Obama surprised Congress by formally requesting nearly $4 billion in emergency funding to address the immigration crisis along the southern border with Mexico, according to The New York Times. That request is almost twice as much money as White House officials previously indicated would be needed.
The proposed spending would go to beef up border patrols and aerial surveillance, build new detention facilities and increase the number of immigration judges hearing cases. Nearly half of the money would be used to improve care of the estimated 52,000 children and 39,000 families apprehended at the border this year while many of them are moved through the deportation process, according to the Times.
The White House signaled yesterday that Obama would likely take a hard line and push to deport most of the unaccompanied minors entering the country illegally, according to the Washington Post. However, as seeks the $4 billion of emergency funding, the president can expect sharp criticism of his policies from both sides of the aisle.
For instance, many Democrats and civil liberties advocates fear the president will roll back protection for these children that have been provided until now under anti-human trafficking laws signed by President George W. Bush in 2008. Republicans, meanwhile, are complaining that the current crisis at the border is due primarily to Obama’s failed immigration policies.
Rep. Tom Cole (R-OK) has repeatedly blasted Obama for failing to stanch the flow of unaccompanied children and others illegally crossing the U.S-Mexico border. “This is not a humanitarian crisis,” he said recently. “This is a policy failure.”
The fight over Obama’s handling of the immigration crisis highlights a series of contentious spending battles that will rage this summer.
Ironically, many assumed that after House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan (R-WI) and Senate Budget Chair Patty Murray (D-WA) thrashed out a two-year budget deal last December that implementing the decisions would be relatively easy.
That agreement came after a 16-day government shutdown and seemed to signal a political truce of sorts in the run up to the 2014 mid-term elections. But that is no longer the case, as the two parties brace for showdowns over immigration enforcement spending and these other challenges:
1) Keep the government operating beyond Sept. 30 by passing fiscal 2015 spending bills. This should have been relatively easy after Ryan and Murray agreed that the House and Senate would write appropriations bills for federal agencies and programs using the same top line number of $2.03 trillion over the next two years, The Washington Post noted. While House appropriators have been drafting bills, the Senate has become bogged down in a political standoff between Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV) and Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) over a controversial new administration environmental rule.
McConnell is running for reelection on a platform of protecting Kentucky’s coal industry from new Environmental Protection Agency regulations that would force coal-fired power plants to greatly cut back their greenhouse-gas emissions. McConnell has threatened to press for amendments to the spending bills to block implementation of the new rules aimed at reducing global warming. This has prompted Reid to temporarily shelve consideration of the dozen spending bills that need to be approved by Sept. 30 to avoid another government shutdown.
2) Avert a collapse of the Highway Trust Fund by passing new federal highway spending legislation. The Department of Transportation warns that the trust fund will run dry in the next few weeks unless Congress can forge at minimum a $9 billion to $10 billion short-term compromise to keep state highway programs operating through November. Without that action, there will be mass cancelations of new highway, bridge and mass transit projects this summer.
The economic and political importance of this legislation is a no-brainer: Every state relies on federal funds for between 15 percent and 60 percent of their overall highway and transit funding to avert a mass shutdown of infrastructure projects across the country. The DOT has repeatedly warned that without the new funding, there could be a loss of as many as 700,000 construction industry jobs, which would be a serious blow to the economic recovery.
Lawmakers are deadlocked over how to pay for the new highway spending, with Democrats calling for increased revenues and Republican insisting on offsetting spending cuts that could affect Medicaid disability payments and unemployment insurance benefits.
3) Reauthorize the federal Export-Import Bank. The bank borrows money from the Treasury and uses it to help U.S. companies sell their products abroad by providing low-interest loans to foreign buyers. The bank authorized $27 billion to support about $37.4 billion in overseas sales last year, according to The Wall Street Journal.
Conservative opponents view these transactions as tantamount to corporate welfare and an inappropriate disruption of the free market, while the administration says the agency helps U.S. businesses better compete with foreign companies that often enjoy government subsidies or support.
“We hear a lot from powerful voices on K Street and Wall Street about the bank, but we also should listen to voices from Main Street,” said Rep. Jeb Hensarling (R-TX), the chairman of the House Financial Services Committee, who opposes the bank, reports The New York Times.
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