After 16 days with the federal government in a partial shutdown and just one day before the US reached its borrowing limit, leaders in Congress were able to pass an agreement early Thursday morning to reopen the government and lift the debt ceiling. Following a series of starts and stops between negotiators from both parties, the Senate approved the measure 81-18 and the House followed with a vote of 285-144 to send the bill to the president. Forged by Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV) and Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY), the deal funds the federal government at fiscal year 2013 post-sequestration spending levels through January 15, 2014, and suspends the nation’s debt ceiling until February 7, 2014. The agreement also commits the House and Senate to form a conference committee to resolve differences between the respective chambers’ fiscal year 2014 budgets, and strengthens income-related eligibility verification for Americans receiving subsidies under the Affordable Care Act.
The members of the newly formed bicameral Budget conference committee are tasked with delivering by December 13, 2013 a framework for a tax overhaul and an alternative to new sequester cuts set to take effect January 15, 2014. Deficit-cutting measures are also a priority, with Republicans eyeing cuts to entitlement programs while Democrats are seeking new tax revenues. In addition to the chairmen of the House and Senate budget committees — Rep. Paul D. Ryan (R-WI) and Sen. Patty Murray (D-WA) — the 29-member panel includes party leaders, veteran negotiators and experts on the budget, taxes and appropriations.
Differences between budgets passed by the House and Senate earlier this year, however, remain stark. The first task of the committee will be to reach an agreement on a top line spending level to use for making appropriations— the $986 billion specified in the fiscal deal, the $967 billion that reflects the Budget Control Act level for fiscal 2014, or the $1.058 trillion proposed by the Senate in its budget resolution. Rep. Ryan and most House Republicans remain adamantly opposed to any tax increases, arguing that the administration got all the revenue the GOP will concede in January’s fiscal cliff deal. Murray and most Democrats insist that any replacement of budget cuts under sequester or long-term deficit reduction plan needs to contain a mix of new revenue and spending cuts.
Despite being the first day of the government shutdown, October 1st also marked the unveiling of the Affordable Care Act’s online insurance exchanges. Though largely overshadowed by the drama of the government shutdown, the roll-out of the insurance exchanges has been rife with technical issues, leaving millions who attempted to log into the federal exchange unable to gain access to the online system. Some of the individual state exchanges have had greater success, with a combined 150,000 people having turned in applications for health coverage in the separate, state-run marketplaces. Administration officials have said there is plenty of time to resolve problems with the federal exchanges before the mid-December deadline to sign up for coverage that begins Jan. 1 and the March 31 deadline for coverage that starts later. A round-the-clock effort has been under way to address the technical difficulties, though some fear that the botched roll-out of the federal exchange could undermine the long term success of the law.
With the federal government open again and the debt ceiling temporarily suspended, Washington’s problems are, at least for the moment, on hold. Challenges lie ahead, however, with the newly formed budget conference committee on a tight deadline to reach what will be a difficult consensus on funding levels for the coming year, and for the Administration facing continued obstacles in implementing the Affordable Care Act.
The House of Representatives will be in session next week; the Senate will be in recess.