The Next Congressional Crisis May Be Just Around the Corner

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Late last week, European scientists upended Albert Einstein's Theory of Relativity by recording particles moving faster than light.

No one will ever mistake lawmakers in Washington for moving faster than light speed. But if Einstein had a theory of "Congressional Dysfunctionality," this year's House and Senate would most certainly shatter it.

The Senate approved a bill Monday night to stave off yet another potential government shutdown this weekend. Just a week ago, no one thought there was a chance the government could close, even though Congress and President Obama hadn't reached accord on the annual spending bills to fund the federal government.

This round of spending was supposed to be easy. After all the House and Senate struggled in March and April to approve measures to keep the government running. The country nearly defaulted over the summer before lawmakers finally voted to hike the debt ceiling at the 11th hour.

But like the particles accelerating at superluminious speeds in Europe, the corollary in Washington is that as dysfunctional as Congress has already been this year, it could still grow even more dysfunctional.

This state of perpetual brinksmanship, which has paralyzed Congress from doing little besides approving basic operating monies and keeping the nation from default, has become the standard on Capitol Hill.

The persistence of a Congress operating at the equivalent of DEFCON 1 for the year wasn't lost on Senate Chaplain Barry Black as he delivered the afternoon prayer when the Senate gaveled-in Monday afternoon.

"As they move from crisis to crisis, help our senators to see more clearly the spiritual values that are the heritage and guide for this land we love," Black said.

Earth was on high alert late last week as a decommissioned, six ton research satellite barreled toward the surface. NASA believes the satellite splashed down somewhere in the Pacific Ocean. Frankly, NASA's not really sure. But had Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV) and Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) not crafted an agreement to forestall a shutdown, NASA may have easily mistaken the U.S. Capitol for the crash site.

Congress faced two problems:

The government's fiscal year expires at 11:59 pm Friday and Congress and the president haven't agreed to any of the 12 annual spending bills which fund the federal government. Secondly, a spate of tornadoes, hurricanes, floods, droughts, wildfires and a earthquake swallowed disaster relief funds available to the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA). In fact, there was concern FEMA could run bone dry before Friday.

Late last week, the House of Representatives approved a measure which funded the entire government through November 18 and infused FEMA with cash. But Democrats took issue with "payfor" provisions Republicans tacked onto the legislation in exchange for the disaster aid. Then, House members left for the week. That maneuver essentially dared Reid to approve the House-okayed bill or risk a government shutdown.

Even before the House played it trump card, Reid warned Republicans against calling his bluff, insisting he wouldn't cave. However, after Monday's vote, Reid declared the pact was a "win for everyone."

Still, McConnell criticized Reid, insisting that the "entire fire-drill was completely unnecessary" had the Senate just taken the House bill. But the GOP offsets to the disaster funding in the House legislation were unacceptable to Reid.

A Senate Democratic source indicates that Reid's side inquired about possibly stretching out FEMA funds last week. Over the weekend, Democrats learned that FEMA could get by until at least Thursday and maybe even go to Friday, which is the end of the government's fiscal year.

If FEMA was okay and actually didn't need that last injection of cash for THIS fiscal year, Democrats and Republicans could fight over the funding during the NEXT fiscal year (meaning Saturday and beyond), so long as the government didn't close down.

On Sunday, the source says Reid's aides approached staffers who work for House Speaker John Boehner (R-OH) about approving a temporarily bill, sans the FEMA offsets for FEMA since it could probably scrape by for the week. The source says that Boehner's aides were "cool" to the concept.

But around midday Monday, FEMA told lawmakers that it had $114 million and may be able to cough up $90 million "by shaking the couch cushions." When word spread that FEMA may be alright this week, the source says aides to McConnell signaled to Reid they were ready to broker a compromise and suggested they would work with Boehner.

GOP sources reject the Democrats' interpretation of events. But regardless, the Senate moved ahead with a series of carefully calibrated votes designed to fund federal agencies through both next week and mid-November.

First, the Senate voted to block Reid's initial proposal. Then, 26 Republicans crossed the aisle to help the Senate okay a "clean" funding bill which spends $1.043 trillion for the fiscal year that starts Saturday and dispatches $2.65 billion to FEMA.

That took care of the longer term funding crunch. But the House and Senate still aren't in synch. And they might not be until Thursday, less than 48 hours before the government runs out of money. More on that in a moment.

The Senate then signed off on a short-term "bridge" spending bill (known as a Continuing Resolution or CR, in Congressional terms) that runs through October 4. The expectation from the Senate is that the House would approve the bill to fund the government at the $1.043 trillion level when it returns to full session next week. But some House action was required before Saturday.

This is where it gets tricky.

Democrats have made lots of noise that the House isn't here this week.

"(It's) real hard to negotiate with people who aren't here," lamented Reid on the Senate floor Monday afternoon.

But that's not entirely true. The House is scheduled to meet in two "pro forma" sessions this week. A "pro forma session" is where the House or Senate gavels in and immediately gavels out, conducting no intervening business with only a skeleton crew on hand. This is how both chambers of Congress meet the Constitutional requirement of conducting business every three days unless they've formally adjourned.

The House is slated to conduct its next pro forma session Thursday.

"I hope the House is going to come back from their little break here and approve this as fast as they can," said Reid after the vote.

The entire House won't be asked to return, especially since Thursday's meeting is scheduled right in the middle of Rosh Hashanah.

But the House does need to briefly break out of its pro forma session and conduct legislative business on Thursday to ratify what the Senate did and avoid a shutdown over the weekend. This is easy enough, so long as no member makes any major objection on the floor or demands a formal roll call vote. The House could approve the bill by unanimous consent or by "voice vote." A voice vote is where lawmakers decide an issue by literally shouting yea or nay aloud in the chamber. The side that yells the loudest prevails.

For its part, John Boehner's office never issued a formal signoff on the Reid-McConnell agreement. But House Republicans did convene an evening conference call with rank-and-file members to explain the Senate's action and outline what could unfold later this week.

After the call, one lawmaker close to Boehner indicated that House action "was on track." Meantime, a conservative, freshman lawmaker said that some Republicans were aggravated with FEMA because they were able to "find" the necessary money at the end.

So if the House acts soon, Congress will have short-circuited the latest "crisis" that Senate Chaplain Barry Black spoke of during his invocation Monday.

Black may well ruminate about another crisis when the next tranche of government operating money expires in mid-November. And it's yet to be seen if the deficit supercommittee can successfully make its recommendations for deep budget cuts by its deadline in late November.

November seems light-years away. But in Congressional terms, its really not. November is practically here. After all, the European physicists discovered that there are some particles in the universe which move faster than light. And don't be surprised if they determine that one of those particles is the Congressional calendar.