Passing A Consolidated Spending Bill Does Not Signal A Changed Congress

The House and Senate passed a consolidated appropriations bill for the final six months of the fiscal year, circumventing the formal appropriations process. The extreme voices on both sides of the aisle appear to have quieted down. The leadership in the House of Representatives has stated immigration reform will be taken up in the lower chamber in 2014. The 2014 mid-term elections campaign season must be in full swing.

In the week since Congress passed a consolidated spending bill, political pundits are asking if this is a sign of greater cooperation in 2014. The general opinion, at least as I perceive it, is yes, that brighter days are upon us. I don’t buy it. After all, the first primaries are less than three months away.

With the GOP goal to retake control of the Senate while maintaining control of the House, they have to tone the volume down a notch. If they hope to be successful, Republicans have to start creating and concentrating on positive events. They have to stop beating the proverbial dead horse of repealing Obamacare. This will still be the central issue of their campaigns, but the approach must be different.

The federal deficit is falling and regardless of the reasons, this simple fact will defuse the rhetoric of large deficits under Obama. Democrats will not let the voters forget this.

Enter the budget debate.

Coming off the recent government shutdown, viewed by many as a Republican-caused event, the best way to help GOP candidates is to pass a spending plan. Done. However, the bill passed was not in line with the budget process.

There were no committee hearings on the 12 required appropriations bills. Instead, a bill originally meant to extend the application of certain space launch liability provisions through 2014 was stripped and amended as a consolidated appropriations bill. Since the original bill had already been handled under House and Senate rules, the process for floor amendments was followed. No appropriation committees, no ways and means committees, no budget committees.

However, this is an election year and the government is now funded for the remainder of the current fiscal year. Two questions remain. Will Congress complete the required budget process for FY 2014-2105: joint budget resolution and 12 appropriation bills passed and signed by September 30, 2014? And, will Congress increase the debt ceiling by February 7, 2014? I’d expect some noise by the tea party folks and those in ultra-conservative districts, but the GOP can’t afford bad publicity.

Another area the GOP must change perception on to have a chance of winning the necessary seats to take control of both chambers of Congress is immigration reform.

The Senate passed a comprehensive immigration reform bill in summer 2013. At that time, House leadership expressed no desire to move forward, downplaying any urgency. The House Judiciary Committee was holding hearings on separate bills, but there were no plans to bring the issue to the full House.

Enter 2014 and campaign season.

It now looks like the speaker will move forward on this issue. From hiring a key immigration adviser, who served as an adviser to Senator John McCain (R-AZ), to criticizing the extreme factions of the party, to pressure from high tech and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) sees this as a necessary step if GOP campaigns are to result in victory.

Could a piecemeal approach win Senate approval?

If comments made by Senators McCain and Charles Schumer (R-NY) last summer are any indication, the answer is yes. The Republicans need to pass something to offset the Democratic drumbeat of no action on immigration reform. Even if separate bills pass, I doubt Democrats will allow the issue from last summer fade away.

I do believe some form of immigration reform will pass before November. Campaigns will soon be at full speed and the desire to take control of Congress is strong.

An issue still not feeling the impact of campaign season is the extension of federal unemployment benefits. While a motion for cloture passed on the original bill with six GOP senators voting in favor, an amended bill failed with only one of the six — Dean Heller (R-Nev) voting for cloture. But this is an election year so this too will change if the GOP is serious about taking control.

I am convinced the movement on critical issues we are seeing now is totally related to election campaigns. Come the start of the 114th Congress in January, 2015, it will return to the tit-for-tat business as usual.

The Brookings Institute — not exactly a Republican-leaning organization — blames the committee process in the Democrat-controlled Senate for the state of Congress. And, if the GOP takes control of the Senate, Mitch McConnell (R-KY) is not ruling out a broader change to filibuster rules, launching a nuclear strike to end the 60 vote rule on all legislation.

There could be a positive result to all this. If nothing changes, will independents finally gain real influence in 2016?