Congress will soon be forced to debate yet another short-term, stopgap bill to keep the government open, not because a budget deal can't be reached, but because lawmakers haven't left enough time to reach one.
The House and Senate have already left town for Thanksgiving. And once they return, both chambers are in session concurrently for just four days -- Dec. 10 through Dec. 13 -- before Congress adjourns again for the holiday recess.
Simply put, there won't be enough time for budget negotiators to solidify the details of an agreement that sets spending levels for the rest of fiscal 2014 and fiscal 2015 -- much less sell it to their respective caucuses -- before a Dec. 13 deadline.
But that's not the only deadline being threatened by Congress's vacation schedule. Funding for the federal government expires Jan. 15. So if House Budget Chairman Paul Ryan, R-Wis., and Senate Budget Chairwoman Patty Murray, D-Wash., fail, as expected, to reach agreement by Dec. 13, lawmakers will return to Washington the week of Jan. 6 staring down another government shutdown, with only about a week to do something about it.
All told, the two chambers of Congress have scheduled just 10 days in session together between Nov. 22 and Jan. 15, out of a possible 51 days, not counting Thanksgiving, Christmas, and New Year's Day.
That's why House Republicans, before leaving town for Thanksgiving, began plotting to pass a continuing resolution to keep the government funded past Jan. 15, when the current CR is set to expire.
The likelihood of passing a short-term CR is high, according to a House leadership aide. "But no decision has been made as to whether we do it before we leave [on Dec. 13] or when we get back [on Jan. 7]," the aide said.
Regardless of timing, lawmakers say the most likely scenario is the House passing a three-month CR that funds the government through April 15. "You will see a 90-day CR happen," one House Republican, who asked not to be identified so he could speak frankly about strategy, said last week.
The preference among GOP lawmakers is to pass the short-term CR prior to leaving town on Dec. 13. That way, if talk of another government shutdown arises over recess, the House GOP could argue it acted preemptively to keep the government open before heading home for the holidays.
There's no guarantee that Congress would approve any such short-term funding bill, because it would likely lock in a second round of sequester cuts that members of both parties are hoping to avoid.
If approved, however, the CR could buy Ryan and Murray more time to iron out the details of a long-term budget deal that replaces those sequester cuts with a mix of revenues and targeted spending cuts.
Regardless of whether a budget agreement is reached, it's unclear why Congress, in ending October's 16-day government shutdown, set two deadlines that were threatened by its holiday vacation schedule.