What (or Who) Is 'Responsible' in Today's Fiscal Reality?

Senators and experts play the blame game ahead of looming budget talks.

With the end of the fiscal year just weeks away, Congress is feeling the pressure on passing legislation to keep the government from shutting down that makes both parties happy, or at least, something both sides can tolerate. So far, Democrats and Republicans remain gridlocked. But according to Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, it's not for lack of trying.

"Our problem is not the lack of ideas," said Hatch, a ranking member of the Senate Committee on Finance. "Our problem is the lack of leadership on the part of the administration and their allies in Congress."

Here, Hatch provided an answer to the question posed at a policy summit hosted by National Journal on Thursday: What is "responsible" in today's fiscal reality? America's growing debt, Hatch said, is a result of high government spending. The senator said failed attempts at reining in this spending have resulted from the Obama administration's "insatiable desire to keep increasing taxes" and refusal "to entertain any structural changes to entitlement programs."

But the more pressing matter now is the looming threat of a government shutdown, which comes to a head on Sept. 30. The House GOP is currently floating a $986.3 billion continuing resolution that would fund government programs and services at current letters. But some of their fellow Republicans have a different idea. They presented on Tuesday a concurrent resolution that states any appropriation must come with a caveat: defund The Affordable Care Act, otherwise known as Obamacare. Hatch said he's confident Congress can agree on a continuing resolution by the end of the month, but didn't say which one he backed.

"The clock is ticking," Hatch warned. "We need to act quickly and avoid uncertainty created by pushing debt limit discussion to the last minute." But, even with the passage of a CR, the possibility of a Christmastime fiscal crisis similar to that of last year is high.

Robert Greenstein, the president of the nonpartisan Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, put that uncertainty into stronger terms when he spoke after the senator. "If we get to the 11th hour and House Republicans refuse to pass a continuing resolution that does not put the dagger into the Affordable Care Act, then we will have a government shutdown," Greenstein said. "If we get to the 11th hour on the debt limit and the debt ceiling will not be raised in the House … then we actually will have a default."

Greenstein wasn't shy about what was responsible for the country's current fiscal situation. "The main barrier, Sen. Hatch notwithstanding, is implacable Republican opposition."

Bill Hoagland, senior vice president of the Bipartisan Policy Center, sounded the least optimistic about the upcoming CR and debt limit discussions. "I've given up on grand bargains," he said. "There won't be a grand bargain. I'll take any kind of deal," A 90-day continuing resolution is unavoidable now that budget talks have come down to the wire, Hoagland said. But it won't come easy, he said, thanks to the big elephant in the room: Syria. With developments from overseas coming rapid-fire, it will be difficult for Republicans and Democrats alike to focus on domestic issues, even ones consequences like a default.

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