There are 7-8 budget battlegrounds this year.  The press focuses on only one at a time. You should understand all of them as this year’s components of a multi-year struggle.

1.  FY11 appropriations – Just concluded.  This one happened this year because last year Congress didn’t get their work done.

2.  Early-ish 2011 debt limit extension – This struggle begins now.  Like FY11 appropriations, the debt limit extension is a must pass bill. Unlike appropriations, the back-end date is somewhat flexible.

3.  FY12 budget resolution – This is a Congressional-only document that does not involve the President. The recently House-passed Ryan budget was the House version. Senate Budget Committee Chairman has done nothing (visible) so far on this. In theory the House-passed and Senate-passed versions should have been conferenced and the conference report passed in both Houses by April 15th. This deadline often slips, but the Senate majority appears completely AWOL this year. Maybe Chairman Conrad is waiting to see what happens in the Gang of Six?

4.  The Gang of Six – Democratic Senators Durbin, Conrad, and Warner have been negotiating with Republican Senators Coburn, Chambliss, and Crapo for a few months.  Expectations are high that they might construct a Grand Bargain, maybe along the lines of the Simpson-Bowles recommendations.

Part 1 is whether they agree and if so, on what. Part 2 is what happens if they do.

If they do, it matters a lot how the leaders react.  Does Budget Committee Chairman Conrad mark up a Senate budget resolution based on it?  If so, it could be the first bipartisan budget resolution in many, many years.  If not, then how does a bipartisan core grow?  Do other Senators start signing on?  Does a House counterpart appear?  Does the President endorse it? Or does everyone just retreat to their corners, attack the parts they don’t like, and watch/help it implode?

5.  FY12 appropriations – If the House and Senate agree on a budget resolution conference report (highly unlikely), or even if they agree only on an appropriations total for FY12, then the FY12 appropriations battle could split into 12 smaller appropriations bills.  Some of these 12 could be resolved amicably or with little conflict, while others (like Labor-HHS) would undoubtedly be large struggles.  This is the way the process is supposed to work.

If instead the House and Senate cannot agree on a topline appropriations number, then FY12 appropriations will be a mess, and will likely lead to another omnibus/CR struggle beginning in the second half of September.  Midnight September 30 is the initial hard deadline.

6. The Biden negotiations – These are getting lots of press attention and yet are probably the forum least likely to lead to legislation.

7.  AMT tax extension – Sometime before April 15, 2012, Congress will need to pass a bill that once again “patches” the Alternative Minimum Tax for yet another year.  All concerned would prefer to get this done before the end of the year.  This bill could become a battleground, but it’s not inherently likely by itself to create a conflict.

8. Another debt limit extension (possible) – Watch how much the spring 2011 debt limit extension law increases the debt limit. From that we can figure out roughly when the next debt limit battle will occur. Congressional Republicans might want to tee up another battleground, maybe even before 2011 ends.

Hey, let’s put this in a handy table!

Timeframe Must pass? Major players Comments
FY11 approps just concluded yes POTUS, Boehner, Reid Should have been done last year
Debt limit #1 May-July yes POTUS, Boehner no hard drop-dead date
FY12 budget resolution March-May should pass Ryan, Conrad Conrad/Senate AWOL so far. Will they act?
Gang of Six May? no Durbin, Warner, Conrad
Coburn, Chambliss, Crapo
Uncertain effect even if they agree
FY12 approps now-Fall yes, by October 1 Hal Rogers (House R)
Dan Inouye (Senate D)
Will House and Senate agree on a topline total?
Biden negotiations May—? no VP, Cantor, Kyl Don’t bet on it
AMT extension Nov-Dec eventually Camp, Baucus Might not be a battleground.
Debt limit #2 late 11 /
early 12?
yes, depending on #1 POTUS, Boehner Depends on how #1 goes
(photo credit: George L Smyth)