U.S. runs out of time to fix debt ceiling and prepare a budget

So where to begin? I put my column on hold this summer so that I could make my move to Anchorage (I am teaching for a year at the University of Alaska Anchorage, holding the Atwood Chair for journalism) and to work on a couple of other longer range projects. Labor Day is over and now it’s time to get back to work.

There remain lots of dull, policy stories that are not being written by anyone else. Meaty stuff. Before I took my break, for example, it was unclear whether Congress would appropriate federal money on time and if another government shut-down was on the way. Now that I am back: Who knows? Some in the Congress are willing to shut down the government to stop the implementation of the Affordable Care Act.

The only thing clear is that the Republican party is deeply divided on Capitol Hill.

A proposed Continuing Resolution had to be pulled from the House Wednesday because there wasn’t enough votes for that measure to pass. There is a bloc of members in the House and the Senate that will take about any step required to thwart the Affordable Care Act (or Obama Care, if you prefer). That means closing the government, refusing to pay the bills that Congress has already charged on the national credit card, and at the same time, destroying their own party’s leadership. As Politico put it: “The GOP is clearly struggling with itself over how best to keep the government operating and placate conservatives who want to cut off all funding for implementing Obama’s signature reforms.”

The problem is that no side has a majority. There are three distinct caucuses: Democrats, traditional Republicans and the new radical Republicans. None of those three groups has an easy way to win enough votes to win a majority.

Take the House: There is a natural governing coalition that could band together, Democrats with a few Republicans to make enough votes to pass a budget and basically keep the government humming. But the problem is that if Speaker John Boehner taps this coalition too often, then he’s toast. He’ll lose his job. He needs to keep a majority of Republicans happy. Even if that means chaos.

What’s more any support Boehner picks up from Democrats will have a price tag in terms of policy. The Continuing Resolution that was just pulled back included some exemptions from the sequester for the Defense Department. That’s not going to happen with Democratic votes; far more likely that Democrats would demand sequester relief for domestic programs.

The Senate landscape is a bit better for those who want a functioning government. By the radical Republicans’ count there are 14 senators who would shut down the government over the Affordable Care Act. That’s probably not enough to gum up the works, especially if traditional Republicans vote with Democrats.

So what does this all mean for Indian Country? The days and weeks ahead are going to be rough and, yes, the government could shut down. There are two significant issues that have to be resolved quickly.

First: The next budget cycle starts on October 1 and Congress is running out of time to reach a deal. The House leadership’s miscue this week didn’t help because it shows how divided that caucus remains.

Second: The government’s authority to borrow money has almost reached its limit. The Bipartisan Policy Center estimates there’s only enough wiggle room to keep the government operating until sometime between October 18 and November 5. “Unless the debt limit is increased, there will come a point where the Treasury does not have enough cash to pay all bills in full and in time.” This is far more serious than a government shutdown because it impacts everything from interest rates to a paying retirement benefits.

So here we go again. Another step to the edge of disaster (with one side shouting, “jump, jump, jump!”) Perhaps there will be a last minute breeze of sanity. But it seems that every time that reason is about to happen, then the right wing advocates demand another cyclone.

It’s going to get real windy.

• Mark Trahant is the 20th Atwood Chair at the University of Alaska Anchorage. He is a journalist, speaker and Twitter poet and is a member of The Shoshone-Bannock Tribes. Join the discussion about austerity. Comment on Facebook at:

https://www.facebook.com/IndianCountryAusterity

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