Friday is Congress' (latest) self-imposed deadline on coming to some sort of agreement on the budget — and it may actually achieve the tricky goal of not completely failing. The debate is now largely focused on two points of contention: how and if sequestration will be rolled back, and whether unemployment benefits for the long-term unemployed will be continued.
It's only because of the sequestration cuts that the negotiations are happening right now at all. You may remember that, in the aftermath of the government shutdown in October, the House and Senate agreed to hold committee talks, chaired by Wisconsin Rep. Paul Ryan and Washington Sen. Patty Murray, on developing a big picture deal on the budget. They set a deadline of December 13, largely because Democrats wanted to avoid deeper cuts scheduled to kick in in January. At Politico, Darren Samuelsohn describes how the threat of deeper cuts have both public and private organizations very nervous.
The looming cuts promise to hurt military troop readiness and limit FBI agents who keep tabs on terrorists, gangs and white-collar criminals. It’s not a pretty picture either for cash-strapped scientists already hamstrung tracking deadly diseases and educators who this year had to turn down more than 50,000 preschoolers.
This is how sequestration was supposed to work: ratcheting up pressure on the government at large with blind cuts to force Congress to reach a deal. It was the outcome of the 2011 budget negotiations, essentially a threat to future Congresses that each year the pain would get worse. And after a year of scaling back, the threat appears to finally be working. As The Washington Post reported last week, the still-sketchy outlines of a possible minor deal includes "partial relief from sequestration," mostly by stopping some new deeper cuts from going into effect and giving agencies more flexibility in administering old ones.
"We can’t say it will fix every problem caused by sequestration, but it will provide some flexibility," says a senior Democratic aide. "Some of the people who would have been furloughed won't be furloughed. Some of the investments that wouldn't have been made will now be made."
It's worth noting again that the sequestration, once pilloried by both Democrats and Republicans, has turned into a political boon for conservatives. "Selling every Republican on the need to end the sequester is no simple task," Samuelsohn writes. "Conservatives see the cuts as a prized feather in their cap … that shouldn’t be undone unless Democrats agree to make commensurate changes to mandatory spending programs." This is a far cry from when the party tried to pin the blame for cuts on the president, referring to the policy with the clunky neologism "Obamaquester."
For Democrats, the more pressing issue is the imminent expiration of benefits for the long-term unemployed. Each year since the recession began, the federal government has approved extending benefits for those who've been out of work for 27 weeks or more — the point at which most states end benefits. As it was last year, the renewal of those benefits for another year has become enmeshed with budget talks, prompting Obama to focus on an extension in his weekly address. But the job market has improved significantly over the last year, and the number of long-term unemployed is near its lowest level since the recession began.
Last week, House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi demanded that an extension be included in a budget deal — then walking that back a few hours later, saying an extension "could be separate from that as well." Over the weekend, New York Sen. Chuck Schumer agreed, telling ABC News that there was flexibility on when an extension could occur, but agreed that it was a priority.
Update, 9:45 a.m.: It looks like the unemployment insurance extension won't be part of the deal.
Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul, for his part, took a different tack. "I support unemployment benefits for the 28 weeks they're paid for," he told Fox News Sunday, but extending it beyond that is "a disservice to these workers," presumably because it provides a disincentive to find work. Which is flatly wrong: as multiple outlets including the National Journal have noted, those who've been out of work for extended periods face a much more challenging hiring environment.
Regardless, it's likely that a deal — a piecemeal deal involving fee increases and other tweaks — will happen at some point soon. And Americans, according to a new poll from McClatchy-Marist, are fine with anything that gets done. By a 52-41 margin, voters approve of the rumored plan. Not overwhelming, but enough to provide some cover to Congress.
But again, the bar is pretty low. Any deal at all seems like a miracle these days, if it avoids a complete collapse of the government. It seems that, unlike in October, Congress will be able to get that done.