This is Wyoming Senior Senator Mike Enzi’s first year as chairman of the Budget Committee. Yet the government may still be screeching towards a shutdown in a month and Enzi may have an uphill battle to get the nation’s finances in order.
Earlier this year, Enzi crafted a balanced budget. It was seen as a major accomplishment for the new Republican majority in the Senate after years of Democrats bypassing the procedure. But a budget is merely a blueprint, and the spending committee has yet to bring a single spending bill before the full Senate for a vote. But try telling Enzi his effort was in vain.
“Oh, no, no, no; that’s not true,” he says. “That’s not true. The Appropriations Committee have taken all 12 appropriations, all 12 spending bills and passed them out of committee in a bipartisan way, following the budget.”
Still, the Democratic minority is blocking those bills from coming up before the full Senate. That’s because Enzi’s budget increased spending for the military while cutting spending for domestic programs. Enzi says there’s still time to bring up the spending bills in regular order, instead of passing a so-called omnibus bill that lumps every federal agency into one bill.
“Now we’ve got to bring those 12 bills up, which is what we’re supposed to do before October 1st and get them passed. I’m not in favor of doing an omnibus bill which would be some kind of massive put together with the president, because I’m afraid of what he might do to the bill.”
While Enzi is still sounding optimistic, over on the House side, Republicans are grumbling.
“It’s indescribably frustrating,” says Wyoming Congresswoman Cynthia Lummis. She doesn’t blame Enzi though. She blames the Senate filibuster rule, which ties the hands of the majority party.
“The fact that the Senate has not and continues to stone wall on this issue is a tremendous frustration. That 60 vote threshold that is required in the Senate is something I think the Senate should reconsider.”
Republicans in the House have had their own problems though. Remember this summer’s Confederate Flag controversy? Some rank and file Republicans were demanding a vote to allow confederate flags at federal cemeteries and party leaders were forced to pull the bill to avoid embarrassment. That debate caused Lummis to watch her hard work go down the drain.
“I had worked so hard to assist the Interior-Environment Appropriations Committee with getting that bill passed the House,” she says. “That was the bill that we were moving along with, then came the Confederate Flag amendment and the wheels came off and it just brought everything to a screeching halt.”
Enough about flags. Remember sequestration? That's those indiscriminate budget cuts that ripped across the military and most every federal agency a few years ago. Lawmakers were able to get sequestration off the books two years ago by reaching a bipartisan budget deal, and Virginia Democratic Senator Mark Warner bemoans that those talks aren’t taking place now.
“Now we’re steaming down the path toward the cliff at the end of September and there’s a complete unwillingness, at least from the Republicans so far to even negotiate.”
Senator Warner is a moderate calling for a big budget deal that includes entitlement reforms and tax increases.
“Any mix that’s going to require revenues or willingness to make changes in entitlement programs, revenues are hard for Republicans,” Warner says. “Talking about entitlement reform is hard for Democrats. I believe forcing those two items together actually might force both parties off the dime a bit.”
But Senator Enzi rejects the calls for tax increases to fund what he deems a bloated federal budget.
“Well, there’s always a lot of pressure to spend more. You get credit for spending money, you don’t get credit for being careful and eliminating some programs, mostly because of the furor from the people who had the jobs in those programs.”
While Enzi’s still holding out hope that lawmakers can take up spending bills one at a time, he also suspects at some point there will be negotiations between Republican leaders in Congress and President Obama on next year’s spending levels. He says as Budget Chairman, he wants a seat at the table.
“I’ve spent a lot of time preparing what ought to be asked for in those negotiations; it’s not the right way to do it, but if that’s the way we’re going to do it I’ve got some asks in there that I think are very logical to make sure we stay on track to getting a balanced budget and hopefully to start paying down some of the debt so future generations aren’t stuck with it.”
This was lawmakers first week back in Washington after taking a month long break from legislating. That means the clock is ticking and partisan gridlock may once again lead to a government shutdown. But for now, Republican leaders on Capitol Hill aren’t showing much of a sense of urgency.