How Syria’s Crisis Is Causing an American Fiscal Fiasco
Policy + Politics

How Syria’s Crisis Is Causing an American Fiscal Fiasco

REUTERS/Adrees Latif

With so much at stake both militarily and politically, congressional leaders have signaled they will not rush to judgment about Obama’s Syrian strategy. This creates more than a scheduling problem—it could create another major budget crisis.

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV) and Boehner both decided against cutting short the August congressional recess. Instead, the Senate and House will conduct hearings, briefings and floor debates and vote on a joint resolution by the end of next week.

With time off after those votes for the Jewish holiday Yom Kippur, that would leave just two full weeks before fiscal 2014 officially begins. Yet both chambers of Congress have yet to agree to a budget framework or approve the dozen spending bills necessary to keep government agencies and programs operations.

This likely strengthens Boehner’s hand in his call for a new, short-term continuing resolution to keep the government operating at this year’s spending levels while the two sides thrash out their differences over the sequester and other budget issues before adjourning later this fall.

“I think it’s much more likely that the fiscal showdown will now occur sometime in October, and the speaker’s argument in favor of a short-term [continuing resolution] will prevail,” said William Galston, a government policy expert with the Brookings Institution.

But even that scenario could be upended if the Syrian crisis worsens and Congress is further drawn into the fray. Enrollment in the Obamacare health insurance exchanges is scheduled to begin on Oct. 1, which many conservative Republicans are trying to delay – if not defund. And the government will be down to its last two weeks of financial maneuvering before finally bumping up against the current $16.7 trillion debt ceiling and risking default on its obligations.

Even before the Syrian crisis took center stage, profound Democratic and Republicandifferences over these fiscal and policy issues were threatening to produce a highly combustible autumn in Washington.

The White House claims it will not negotiate over a debt ceiling increase, while GOP lawmakers are hashing out whether to extract as many spending cuts as possible, potentially to programs such as Medicare and Medicaid, or to double down on blocking Obamacare.

Moreover, Congress appears to be sliding toward a second year of sequestration—meaning the slashed budgets of this past year will soon receive an equally unpopular sequel of automatic, across the board cuts in defense and domestic discretionary spending.


Joseph Minarik, a former Democratic congressional and Clinton White House budget expert, recently told The Fiscal Times,“We really are off the charts on all this stuff. It does seem as though we’re even further away from a basic consensus about the need for government to function than many would consider proper.”

Galston noted that House and Senate Republicans are divided over such key issues as the debt ceiling and immigration reform, and may need until later this year to reach a consensus among themselves.

“Some time between now and Christmas they’re going to have to come to grips with both issues,” Galston said. “They’ll probably do the debt ceiling first and then immigration. But unlike the debt ceiling, they could kick the immigration can down the road into the next calendar year. So there may be some sentiment for doing that depending on how long it takes to get to some version of yes on the debt ceiling.”