US budget first Republican fight after midterm win

(From left) Speaker of the House John Boehner, US President Barack Obama, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell - who is set to become Majority Leader - and Democratic Senator Chuck Schumer at a luncheon for Congressional leaders in the Old Family D
(From left) Speaker of the House John Boehner, US President Barack Obama, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell - who is set to become Majority Leader - and Democratic Senator Chuck Schumer at a luncheon for Congressional leaders in the Old Family Dining Room at the White House in Washington on Nov 7, 2014.

WASHINGTON (AFP) - US lawmakers return to Washington on Wednesday, Nov 12, 2014, for their first session since Republicans routed President Barack Obama's Democrats, facing the threat of yet another tough budget fight.

Funding next year's government operations could emerge as a flash point in the "lame duck" session between last week's midterms and the arrival of newly-elected and re-elected members on Jan 3.

In September, lawmakers punted on negotiating a federal spending Bill, instead passing a continuing resolution that only funds government until Dec 11.

Democrats, who will lose their Senate majority in the new Congress, would prefer to pass an "omnibus" spending package to fund federal operations through September 2015, the end of the fiscal year.

Such a package is reportedly already under negotiation and passing an omnibus would prevent another all-out war over spending like the one that shuttered government for 16 days in Oct 2013, a crisis largely blamed on Republicans.

One day after the midterms the Republican leader in the Senate, Mitch McConnell, eager to show his party's competence in governing in the run up to the 2016 presidential race, indicated he had no stomach for repeat fiscal showdowns.

"Let me be clear: There will be no shutdowns and no default on the national debt," Mr McConnell said.

But his party's conservative flank will push for a short-term continuing resolution so that more austere spending can be negotiated early next year when Republicans control both chambers of Congress.

An omnibus Bill would mean Republicans would not be able to use must-pass legislation to exert leverage.

Conservatives have indicated they want to attach other measures to spending legislation, such as a repeal of the health care law, rollbacks of environmental and energy regulations or approving construction of the long-delayed Keystone XL oil pipeline.

Such a move would force Mr Obama to either sign legislation deflating some of his key achievements, or veto it and set up another fiscal showdown.

While Republican House member Aaron Schock told AFP he does not expect Mr Obama "to roll over and play dead" in 2015, Republicans will be "in a better position to negotiate with the President."

No major floor votes are expected this week as members, returning from seven weeks on the campaign trail, focus on party leadership elections and thrash out legislative agendas.

On Thursday, Republicans are expected to vote Mr McConnell to be majority leader from January.

All signs point to current Majority Leader Harry Reid maintaining his post on Thursday as top Senate Democrat, albeit in the minority role, while an official vote to keep Republican congressman John Boehner as House speaker will happen in January.

Congress also needs to vote on extending several expiring corporate tax breaks during the lame duck. Passage is expected but not guaranteed amid Washington's deep divide on fiscal issues.

Complicating matters, Mr Obama has requested US$6 billion (S$7.7 billion) in emergency funding to fight Ebola in West Africa, and US$5.6 billion for the fight against the Islamic State extremist group in Iraq and Syria.

Given the Thanksgiving holiday break in late November, lawmakers will have just 15 working days to consider those requests and the tax breaks, and hammer out a deal that keeps government running after Dec 11, the day before Congress expects to adjourn for 2014.

Republicans could avoid a Capital Hill slugfest in coming weeks by cooperating with Democrats to clear the legislative decks before January.

But the President has thrown a potential spanner in the works: immigration reform, which stalled in the House after a bipartisan Bill passed the Senate last year.

Mr Obama recently said he would act unilaterally by year end to reform the immigration system, a move Boehner warned would "poison the well."

Mr Schock said Republicans could act to block Mr Obama by passing a CR that "would contain language prohibiting the use of funds to carry out whatever it is he attempts to do" on immigration.