Wednesday evening, the Senate passed its version of a continuing resolution to provide government spending authority through September 30th, the end of the fiscal year. The government has been operating off a series of continuing resolutions, since the Senate hasn't passed a formal budget in four years. Passage of the CR, which the House is expected to approve, means that the Congress can now move to debate over the budget, without the threat of a government shutdown.
Continuing resolutions generally fund existing government programs with some increase in annual spending. It is government on auto-pilot. The CR emerging from Congress largely follows this trend, with some tweaks to mitigate looming sequester cuts. One Senate provision, for example, would shift funding within the Department of Agriculture to prevent any cuts in meat inspectors.
There is also some movement towards putting some programs on a year-long budget, meaning that any sequester cuts could be spread over 12 months, rather than having to be booked by the end of September.
Most of this, though, is Washington budget voodoo. What the Senate's action really means is that everyone is basically clearing the decks to have a full-throttled debate over the actual budget. Much of the strategy, from both parties, has been to punt on the manufactured crises of debt ceiling or sequestration to allow a robust debate over a formal budget.
Passage of the CR means that the full debate over the budget will now begin. The nation will hit its debt ceiling in mid-May. Accounting moves by the Treasury Department will allow the government to keep borrowing money until late June or early July.
That is the book-end. Between now and then, we can have a robust debate over the federal budget, without some cataclysmic event hanging in the balance. Today's Senate actions signal that the fight has begun. We better be ready.
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