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Hope fades in Congress for drama-free funding of U.S. agencies

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By Reuters
Sunday, July 13, 2014, 6:33 p.m.
 

WASHINGTON — This year was supposed to be different for Congress.

Lawmakers expected that a promising budget deal reached after a government shutdown last year would herald a new normal for passing annual spending bills, moving Congress away from the crisis-driven approach and resulting economic jitters of recent years.

But the spending bills have been derailed in the Senate by election-year politics and a war over Republican amendments that range from thwarting curbs on power-plant carbon emissions to restoring potatoes to a government nutrition assistance program.

With a new fiscal year to start on Oct. 1, a stopgap funding measure of the type that has kept the federal government afloat in fits and starts for five years looks increasingly likely, along with the risk of a new government shutdown.

Congress starts a five-week recess on Aug. 1 and has about 10 work days in September before lawmakers break for a month of campaigning for November congressional elections.

“Prospects don't look good at the moment” for the 12 spending bills, said Sen. Richard Shelby, the top Republican on the Senate Appropriations Committee. “This is an election year, and this is tough politics.”

Nothing has illustrated that sentiment more vividly than the brawl over an amendment fighting new Environmental Protection Agency rules to curb power plant carbon emissions that Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell tried to attach to a package of three spending bills.

McConnell, locked in a heated re-election fight in coal-rich Kentucky, argued that a simple majority for amendments should apply to appropriations bills, rather than the 60-vote threshold he has insisted on in the past.

As the pro-coal amendment was likely to draw significant support from Democrats in re-election battles, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid refused to budge on the 60-vote threshold and pulled the three bills from the floor in June.

The sides remain deadlocked.

The last time Congress succeeded in passing all 12 bills on time was in 1996. In almost 40 years, lawmakers accomplished the task just four times.

Greater political polarization has increased Congress's reliance on stopgap measures to fund the government, political science professor Sarah Anderson found in a 2012 study at the University of California, Santa Barbara.

Anderson said spending bill delays are even longer when one party is split. With the rift between mainstream Republicans and the Tea Party wing, the situation is “probably pretty close to as bad as it gets,” she said.

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