December 21, 2017

Congress turns its sights on budget mess with special impact in CT

Consumed by its effort to pass a federal tax overhaul this week, Congress has failed to pass a budget that would keep the federal government operating past midnight on Friday.

Attempts to find a solution to this problem will have their impact in Connecticut, determining how long the state can continue a health program for children and how long its defense contractors can hire new workers.

The problem is Congress can't agree on how to keep funding the federal government.

An attempt by House GOP leaders to continue to fund most of the government at fiscal 2017 levels until Jan. 19 – the 2018 federal fiscal year began on Oct. 1 – but fully fund the Pentagon for a year collapsed this week.

Rep. Joe Courtney, D-2nd District, said he would have supported the plan because it would have given the Pentagon, and Connecticut's defense industry, some certainty as well as an increase in funding.

The deal included an agreement to reauthorize for five years the Children's Health Insurance Program (CHIP), which covers about 17,000 children in Connecticut whose families earn too much for them to qualify for Medicaid.

Those families are now receiving letters from the state telling them their coverage will end on Jan. 31 unless Congress acts.

The deal offered by House Republicans also included a two-year reauthorization of the federal Community Health Centers grant program, which funnels tens of millions of dollars to 16 Connecticut community health centers and helps cover operations.

Even so, most Democrats opposed the deal because it prioritized military spending over domestic programs. Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer of New York called the plan "dead on arrival," and the threat of a Democratic filibuster doomed it.

In the Senate, GOP leaders tried to fashion a different short-term continuing resolution, or CR, until Jan. 19.

Unlike the House plan, it would have funded all programs, including defense, at 2017 levels and added a provision proposed by Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, as a condition of her support for the GOP tax bill.

That provision would allow insurers to receive the Affordable Care Act's cost-savings reduction (CSR) subsidies that the Obama administration paid without approval from Congress, for two more years. Those subsidies, which were stopped by President Donald Trump, reimbursed insurers for lowering out-of-pocket costs for low- and moderate-income people who purchase health insurance on state exchanges and help stabilize insurance markets.

However, the stabilizing effect of reinstating them is blunted by the newly approved tax bill's abolition of the individual mandate, or requirement that most Americans have health insurance.

That Senate plan failed after House GOP leaders said they would not support a budget bill that included the effort to shore up the ACA.

Late Wednesday House Republicans came out with a new proposal – a continuing resolution that would fund the federal government at 2017 levels until Jan. 19 and give states a few more weeks of CHIP funding.

But that plan may not pass muster either because it contains reauthorization for a controversial domestic surveillance program.

In the end, if the solution to the budget crisis is for Congress to pass another short-term budget bill, the long-term funding of the CHIP program and community health centers and other unfinished business – including approval of legislation that would shield from deportation youths who were brought illegally by their parents to the United States — will continue in limbo.

CHIP has historically had strong bipartisan support. But it, and the other programs Congress has failed to act on, are likely to continue to be political bargaining chips when Congress tries again in January to pass a budget bill.

The lack of a budget bill and continued funding of the Pentagon at last year's levels also hurts the military's ability to move forward on new programs and repairs that were not included in the 2017 federal budget.

"We're not at a crisis point yet, but we are getting close," Courtney said.

He said the Navy has lost billions of dollars in recent years to inefficiencies caused by Congress's inability to pass annual budgets, instead funding the government though a string of continuing resolutions.

"It's a real corrosive problem," he said.

He said new hiring is continuing at Electric Boat, but that could change "if we go deep into January or February" without a new federal budget.

The main reason is that, without a deal, budget caps known as sequestration will cut into the defense budget and into the money needed to continue production of the Virginia-class submarines built by EB and the new Columbia-class sub program the shipyard is working on, too.

Meanwhile, Democratic lawmakers on Wednesday demanded Republicans act before the holidays to reauthorize coverage for the CHIP program, which is known as HUSKY B in Connecticut.

"This is the ultimate bad Christmas carol story," Rep. Jackie Speier, D-Calif., said at a news conference where Democratic colleagues held lumps of coal as symbolic punishment for bad behavior.


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