Here's What's Happening After the Debt Ceiling: Nothing

“That’s what our leadership said—if we get past this one, we’re done until the election,” said Rep. Tim Huelskamp, a Kansas Republican. “That’s what our leadership said—if we get past this one, we’re done until the election,” said Rep. Tim Huelskamp, a Kansas Republican. John Hanna/AP file photo

The debt-ceiling bill passed by the House Tuesday, unburdened by additional Republican policy demands, appears headed for approval in the Senate, which would mark an end to major fiscal fights for the rest of the year.

With the debt limit raised, a budget passed, and the funds appropriated, Congress will have largely cleared its decks—though for what is still unclear.

As lawmakers head into Presidents Day recess, they have few big-ticket legislative aspirations this year, only a few accomplishments, and plenty of time to campaign.

“That’s what our leadership said—if we get past this one, we’re done until the election,” said Rep. Tim Huelskamp, a Kansas Republican. Indeed, for a collection of lawmakers who already have been criticized as one of the least productive in history, there seems to be little urgency to turn that notion around.

“We spent two years doing nothing,” said New York Rep. Louise Slaughter, the ranking Democrat on the House Rules Committee, adding, “I don’t see a change of pace here. Lots of time off and nothing done.”

One House Democratic aide was even more blunt in assessing the coming months: “The rest is filler.”

Of course, there’s something on everyone’s list. Senate Democrats will pursue a host of issues, including a minimum-wage increase and an extension of federal unemployment insurance. House Majority Leader Eric Cantor, R-Va., said earlier this month that House Republicans will finally advance a GOP alternative to the Affordable Care Act. But the odds against those becoming law are long, and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., was hard-pressed to name other bills that are likely to pass this year. “There aren’t a lot,” he said.

Lawmakers still will have to approve another round of spending bills for the 2015 fiscal year. But whether they do, and whether those will be full-scale budget proposals or messaging tools, remains to be seen. Either way, it won’t be the heavy lifting seen in years past. The bipartisan budget deal has already set the level of government spending, which is one of the major flash points.

The rest is small-ball stuff: tax extenders, an energy-efficiency bill, and addressing how the government pays doctors under Medicare. That has some saying this is the true kickoff to campaign season.

House Democrats now head to their annual policy retreat for the rest of the week, and the full House will not return to Washington until Feb. 25.

Then, the calendar brings a St. Patrick’s Day break in March, a two-week Easter and Passover break in April, and yet more weeks off in May, June, and July. During the summer, lawmakers will be back in their districts the entire month of August and half of September. And in the fall, they will work just two days in Washington during October before heading into November’s election.

Of course, some lawmakers are loath to cede that the Capitol will turn solely to the midterms, at least right away. “My folks at home don’t care about November,” Huelskamp said. “They want solutions.”

Democratic Sen. Maria Cantwell of Washington said it’s too early to view everything through the electoral lens, noting that committee work continues. She recalled a Finance Committee bill to address tax extenders that lawmakers crafted during an election year. The bill got delayed until after November, but when members returned, much of the work had been done, she said.

“We need to not check out and start acting like the election is tomorrow,” said Sen. Martin Heinrich, a New Mexico Democrat. “We’ve got a job to do. We need to be thinking about how to get things done even in a challenging environment.”

And part of that is finishing the debt-ceiling bill. There’s still a chance for some drama in the Senate, with Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas saying he will force Reid to get the 60 votes needed to cut off debate, a procedural move that likely would require five Republicans to cross the aisle to vote with Democrats.

The move suggests there is some division among Republicans. But several GOP senators said they expect that Republicans will not block the bill.

Rather, with the House passing a clean bill on the debt limit—which only months ago was heresy among conservatives—some GOP lawmakers are ceding a plain fact that Democrats have relished pointing out: They must win in the fall if they want to cut spending.

“I think if the recognition is that the Democrats simply will enact no additional fiscal discipline, let’s recognize that reality, agree not to filibuster, and say go ahead, pass an increase,” said Republican Sen. Ron Johnson of Wisconsin. “We can revisit this after the 2014 election.”

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