After averting shutdown, a bigger budget fight brews

Tuesday - 9/27/2011, 8:26am EDT

Steve Bell, senior director of the Economic Policy Project, Bipartisan Policy Center

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By Jolie Lee
Federal News Radio

Just as it appears Congress is poised to reach an agreement to avoid a shutdown, another budget fight follows on its heels.

The Senate passed a continuing resolution Monday night to extend spending six weeks beyond Friday, the end of the current fiscal year. The House plans to vote Monday on the bill, which funds government until Nov. 18.

But Nov. 23 is another important budget date — the 12-member joint select committee on deficit reduction (or supercommittee) must submit its recommendations to Congress on ways to reduce $1.2 trillion to $1.5 trillion in cuts over the next decade.

"The fact is that this Congress apparently didn't know or take into consideration in the agreement yesterday that they're ending this spending, this CR, five days before the joint committee is supposed to report," said Steve Bell, senior director of the Economic Policy Project at the Bipartisan Policy Center, in an interview with Federal Drive with Tom Temin and Amy Morris.

Bell said "some pessimism is warranted," given the supercommittee's tight deadline.

"It's very difficult right now to get by the fact [supercommittee members] are moving slowly, that they have about a month in order to get the legislative language drafted — if they agree on anything — and then get it scored by CBO [Congressional Budget Office]," Bell said.

If the supercommittee fails to reach an agreement, or submits a plan that Congress rejects, agencies can anticipate across-the-board cuts in January 2013. Those cuts are "so draconian," however, that the incoming Congress in 2013 will mostly find ways to lessen their impact, Bell said.

The Office of Management and Budget mandated agencies start preparing a fiscal year 2013 budget that cuts at least 5 percent in discretionary spending. However, the 2013 budget will hinge on the supercommittee's recommendations. For now, agencies' 2013 budget requests are merely a "fond hope," Bell said.

"You don't know what the special committee is going to do," he said. "That is a problem for every federal manager. It's also a problem for the American people in general."

It's unclear how soon the supercommittee's recs will go into effect. Most likely, the members will come up with a "hodge podge" of small cuts "in minor entitlement programs, maybe close a tax loophole or two, and, quite frankly, play a couple of budget games and barely get across the finish line," Bell said.

Political bickering in Congress may have been in the spotlight, but now the supercommittee is "the game in town," he added.

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This story has been corrected from an earlier version that stated $1.5 billion instead of $1.5 trillion.