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Constant deadlines create crisis mode in Congress

As the prospect of a government shutdown grows this week, Congress is following a pattern that has become all too familiar in recent years: lurching from crisis to crisis, struggling to meet a series of legislative deadlines.

The Senate is going through procedural hurdles required to consider - and amend - a spending bill from House Republicans that will kick in when the last short-term spending bill expires at the end of the fiscal year on Sept. 30. The House version of the continuing resolution, as the bill is known, allocates $986 billion to keep the government running through Dec. 15 and strips all discretionary funding for the Affordable Care Act. If their version were to pass, Congress would find itself looking for a way to fund the government again in mid-December.

The Democratically-controlled Senate won't allow President Obama's signature legislative accomplishment to be gutted, so they'll likely amend the bill to restore the funds. Additionally, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., has proposed the idea of only funding the government through Nov. 15, in order to allow Congress to take a stab at returning to regular order, where both chambers would agree on an annual budget and the appropriations committees dole out funds. If that is the case, Congress will have a mere six weeks until a government shutdown looms once again.

What if they can't agree on a short-term spending bill before Oct. 1? Government shutdown is one possibility. But National Review's Robert Costa reports that House Republicans might pass a very short continuing resolution, perhaps lasting a week, to buy more time.

Congress last passed a budget resolution through the normal process in 2009. Since then, a series of stopgap measures has wreaked havoc on the ability of federal agencies to plan for the future, since they don't know how much money they can expect to have. And deep budget cuts mandated by the sequester have hurt government entities like the National Institutes for Health, which won't be able to fund hundreds of medical research projects -- any one of which could have resulted in a scientific breakthrough.

Rep. David Price, the top Democrat on the Homeland Security Appropriations Subcommittee, wrote in an op-ed earlier this week that the appropriations committee is "on life support and in danger of total collapse" because of the sequester.

The appropriations process has traditionally been insulated from serious bouts of partisanship and gives Congress a way to set national priorities. The short-term solutions of recent years don't replace that process, Price wrote. "Whatever expedients may be adopted to avoid shutdown or default, they will be a far cry from the carefully and cooperatively crafted appropriations bills of years past. I have had numerous conversations with appropriators of both parties who stand ready to be a part of the solution to these larger fiscal challenges -- if their leaders will give them room to maneuver."

The U.S. government could hit crisis mode another one or two times before the year is up just to pass spending bills. And Congress has plenty of other big deadlines to meet.

First up: a farm bill. The 2008 version of the law - which was extended by nine months earlier this year -- expires at the end of September along with funding for the federal government. If no new legislation is in place, agricultural policy could revert back to a 1949 law that could cause dairy prices to double.

The Senate passed bipartisan legislation in June, but the House struggled to produce a bill because some conservative lawmakers said it spent too much on food stamps and nutrition programs, which have historically been coupled with agriculture legislation. House leadership split the two bills up, and both an agricultural bill and food stamp legislation with deep cuts have passed. Now, House and Senate leaders must appoint representatives to merge the legislation in a conference committee.

Done yet? Not a chance. Lawmakers will have barely had a chance to catch their breath after these two deadlines when another one pops up: the debt ceiling. Treasury Secretary Jack Lew told congressional leaders Wednesday that the U.S. will no longer be able to borrow enough money to pay its bills after Oct. 17. Once upon a time, raising the debt ceiling was a routine matter. In recent years, conservatives have seized upon it as an opportunity to demand spending cuts. The debt-ceiling vote this October will likely serve as another chance for Republicans to push for a delay in the implementation of Obamacare.

Norm Ornstein, a congressional scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, said many of the short-term battles have been spurred by "a conscious decision by a lot of Republicans to use these processes for a kind of leverage -- the hostage taking model, in a way we hadn't seen before."

"It's no longer a shared interest in making sure that we keep the government running," Ornstein said. "Now it's, 'we will throw all of us over the cliff.'"
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