This Week in DC: Political Fights Emerging

This Week in DC: Political Fights Emerging

With one fiscal crisis resolved, the next budget fights and political battles are beginning to take shape. President Barack Obama is calling for Congress to come up with a “balanced” year-end budget deal as lawmakers ready for the first budget conference committee in four years. The White House will offer up its latest Cabinet nominee today with Obama expected to nominate Jeh Johnson, who had been the Pentagon’s top lawyer, as the next Homeland Security secretary. And lawmakers from both parties are monitoring the technical glitches that have plagued the initial rollout of online health insure exchanges and calling for quick fixes.

BUDGET RECONCILIATION WILL TEST CONFEREES: When it comes to any budget conference committee, including the one just formed under this week’s fiscal agreement, the question that hovers over the major policy disputes is the role of a complex procedural process, known as reconciliation.

Reconciliation allows for adding instructions to a budget resolution that direct committees to submit legislation changing existing law, including tax and budget laws, with specified savings and spending targets. It also allows for that legislation to bypass Senate filibusters.

Many on Capitol Hill see it as the surest way to come up with an agreement for making changes in the tax code or entitlements. Critics, however, charge reconciliation bills have not lived up to their original billing as tools for deficit reduction and have simply served as battering rams when one party controls the White House and the Senate.

House Budget Chairman Paul D. Ryan, R-Wis., and Senate Budget Chairwoman Patty Murray, D-Wash., who will lead the conference pressing to meet a Dec. 13 deadline for a deal, have not yet said whether they will employ reconciliation.

Beyond Ryan and Murray, the 29-member conference includes deal-makers alongside lawmakers with seemingly unbending stances on major fiscal issues, leaving the prospects for a final accord highly uncertain.

There is deep budget, tax and policy expertise on the conference committee, but the voting records of the participants and the recent history of budget negotiations suggest it will be difficult to surmount the obstacles that have held back budget agreements for the past four years.

CQ reporters will be closely following the budget conferees for signs of which way they will go on reconciliation.

DEFENSE SPENDING FRONT AND CENTER: The Pentagon will once again find itself in the crosshairs of the larger political battle over taxes and spending priorities.

The chambers largely agree on overall defense spending with the House and Senate budget plans just over $6 billion apart, a minor difference in a discretionary spending budget of about $1trillion. But both chambers get there in very different ways and budget conference conferees will have to find a middle ground. House Republicans want deeper cuts to domestic spending accounts to avoid chopping the Defense Department. Senate Democrats also want to provide more dollars for the armed forces but say the increase can be paid for with promises of future budget savings.

Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel on Thursday urged Congress to craft a “balanced, long-term spending bill,” but said he didn’t know whether lawmakers can reach an agreement to end sequestration. The department, he said, continues to plan for a range of scenarios.

CQ reporters will be watching to see if budget conferees can come up a way to raise Pentagon coffers.

HEALTH EXCHANGES MAY FACE TEMPORARY SHUTDOWN: The federal online health insurance marketplace has survived months of attacks from Republicans, but now technical issues may force federal officials to do what Capitol Hill could not — shut it down, at least temporarily.

David Brailer, who served as the federal health information technology coordinator in the Bush administration, said it’s “a coin flip” whether the current approach of making small fixes will get things functioning smoothly.

Even House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., a leading backer of the overhaul, said “there’s no question” that the problem with the federal exchange “is something that has to be improved,” and she said she would like to see it fixed soon.

Department of Health and Human Services officials have offered vague assurances that the troubles are temporary.

A Health and Human Services official denied the administration has plans to take down the site. The official said in an email, “We are taking the application function offline at night for a few hours from time to time for maintenance work, though.”

Republicans, who have been focused on the shutdown, budget deal and debt ceiling, are now turning their attention to the exchange rollout.

Rep. Tim Huelskamp, R-Kan., said Wednesday he had been trying to sign up with the exchange for 15 days.

“I finally got a live person this morning. His name is Kenneth,” said Huelskamp. “He works in the call center in Houston and I’m going to be calling him back. His system was down when I finally got a hold of him.”

In the meantime, Huelskamp, who like other members of Congress is required under the law to use the exchanges for health insurance, has been told he may need to fill out a paper application.

CQ reporters will continue to monitor the rollout of the health exchanges and congressional reaction to it.

CQ’s editors and reporters value your feedback on our news coverage and welcome your questions and comments on the stories we’re covering.

— Adriel Bettelheim, Morning Briefing editor,, on Twitter @abettel