WASHINGTON — The new Republican-led Congress marched right up to the edge of its first cliff, peered over the precipice and nearly jumped.
It came within moments of shutting down the Department of Homeland Security over an unrelated dispute about immigration, but managed to avert the crisis. And yet, that was one of the easier tasks facing Republican leaders.
If the first 10 weeks of 2015 are any indication, they have a rough ride ahead. Anxious conservatives see these essential items as their only vehicle to force reforms they yearn for in the face of implacable Democratic and White House opposition.
Here are five major “cliffs” — deadlines by which legislation must be passed in order to avoid disruptions in major federal programs — on the horizon.
1. A steep Medicare cut for doctors
The perennial “doc fix” problem returns once again as the current patch to the flawed Medicare reimbursement formula expires on March 31. Doctors face a steep 21.2 percent cut in payments unless Congress passes legislation to avoid it.
Just about everybody wants to avoid the cuts and replace the “Sustainable Growth Rate” formula. So what’s the problem? It’s extremely expensive. So Congress has instead passed 17 short-term fixes since 2002, often replenishing physician payments with cuts elsewhere in the budget. Each such fix has meant fewer places to find the roughly $17 billion needed annually to stave off the cuts.
2. Highway funding runs dry
The highway trust fund — an important pool of federal money used to finance road construction and mass transit projects — expires May 31. The current extension is a stopgap measure passed by a divided Congress last July to avoid insolvency. And despite a modicum of bipartisan support for financing it by raising the gas tax, there’s no appetite for it among House Republican leaders. So Congress is stuck again on how to find the revenues to replenish the fund.
3. Depletion of the Children’s Health Care Program
Federal funding for the Children’s Health Care Program (short-hand: CHIP) runs out at the end of September.
The program, which helps states provided needed medical coverage to families with children, is broadly bipartisan but fraught with disputes, as is all other health care legislation. Disputes over how much money the government should spend, what sorts of reforms should be made and the length of a reauthorization could make the project cumbersome for the new Congress.
4. A(nother) government shutdown
Funding for the federal government expires on September 30 at midnight.
Since Republicans took over the House in 2011, the mere act of keeping the government open has been an arduous task. It’s not hard to imagine conservatives picking another battle in the hope of finally scoring a victory, but it’s harder to imagine Democrats caving for the first time.
A complicating factor is the return of the sequestration — the jackhammer of across-the-board spending cuts imposed in the 2011 Budget Control Act. It will be very expensive to avoid, and tough to find a balance between more targeted cuts and (if Democrats have their way) revenues to stave off the sequester. Another partisan divide: Republicans are more concerned about avoiding military cuts while Democrats are more concerned about avoiding domestic cuts to programs like education and health care.
5. A catastrophic debt default
The new deadline to raise the debt ceiling or risk a disastrous default will be in October or November, according to the Congressional Budget Office.
The U.S came within one day of breaching the debt limit in 2013, which economists say would have sent the stock market tumbling and risked a global economic meltdown. Conservatives view it as an existential issue — true believers think allowing more debt (even when it’s just a matter of paying bills) irreparably harms the country.
House Budget Chairman Tom Price (R-GA) has hinted at another showdown by saying the debt limit deadline presents “opportunities and pinch points” to potentially seek dollar-for-dollar spending cuts in return. But Democrats have no intention of supporting that.