FOCUS: The Debt Limit Monster Is Coming Back, in Time for Trump’s First 100 Days

WASHINGTON (McClatchy Washington Bureau/TNS) -

Congress is brewing up a budget mess that could turn President-elect Donald Trump’s first 100 days into a fiscal donnybrook.

First, it likely will vote this week to extend the current federal budget just long enough that it expires in the early spring. Second, it’s put off until the same time the political monster called the debt limit and the need to authorize more borrowing. And all of it will aggravate fault lines and threaten hopes of cooperation or comity just as Trump pushes for dramatic changes in taxes, health care and infrastructure.

The most potentially controversial is the debt limit.

It was the debt limit that ignited a tense showdown between Republicans and President Barack Obama in 2011 and briefly shut down much of the government two years later.

Last year, lawmakers pushed any deliberations on the debt limit into 2017. The debt limit is currently suspended until March 15, though it’s expected Treasury has enough accounting measures available to keep the government paying its bills through the summer.

That still means Congress and Trump are going to have to figure out a way to pay those bills and somehow deal with a debt that’s about to top $20 trillion, or double what it was when President Barack Obama took office eight years ago.

“That’s going to be a real mess,” said Maya MacGuineas, president of the nonpartisan Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget, a Washington budget watchdog group.

The politics of the debt limit are unusually difficult — a “daunting challenge,” said Senate Budget Committee Chairman Mike Enzi (R-Wyo.).

Democrats eager to rally around Obama routinely were willing to raise the debt limit, but under Trump may be more reluctant.

“The election did not seem to produce a collaborative atmosphere,” said Robert Bixby, executive director of the nonpartisan Concord Coalition, a budget research group.

“Whereas the country was divided before the election, it’s even more divided now,” said Rep. Elijah Cummings ( D-Md.).

Among Republicans, an influential conservative bloc has long resisted increases in the debt limit without at least changes in the budget process to restrict spending, and is showing no signs of backing down. The last vote to increase the limit, in October 2015, passed largely because Democrats backed it. Seventy-nine Republicans supported the measure and 167 opposed.

One way to tackle the debt limit, said Enzi, is to have a special task force, composed largely of people who don’t hold political office, make recommendations. But similar commissions in recent years have been largely ignored.

Sen. Tim Scott (R-S.C.) was more optimistic some path forward could materialize. “It’s a very different approach when you have all three levers” of government, he said, though he did not provide details.

Even before the debt limit is considered, Congress and Trump will have to figure out how to pay the bills.

Most federal agencies will run out of money at midnight Friday unless Congress approves a budget by then. Chances are it will, with a $1.07 trillion spending plan that will continue funding largely at last year’s levels but only last until late March or April. That means a new battle next spring over spending in the current fiscal year that runs to Sept. 30.

And that’s only one of the budget fights. By April 15, Congress is supposed to approve a blueprint for the budget taking effect in the fiscal year starting Oct. 1. Under a 2011 law, spending for discretionary programs, or those Congress and the White House can control, will be sharply restricted and would remain largely at current levels unless lawmakers dictate otherwise.

Trump so far has said little about his wishes for the debt or budget, other than he wants to cut taxes and spend more on infrastructure and defense. But he’s going to find rough going unless the White House and GOP congressional leaders can get past this wall of budget trouble.

Trump hasn’t sent many signals as to how he’ll deal with the budget and debt, or laid out a precise first 100-day agenda. But he has proposed tax cuts and spending. Rudolph Penner, a fellow at Washington’s nonpartisan Urban Institute, a research group, warns “a multitrillion-dollar increase will be necessary to accommodate Trump’s agenda.”

Republicans say they can get the budget moving without much fanfare. “We think it is going to be much better negotiations than with the existing government,” said House Speaker Paul Ryan (R-Wis.). “We have a lot of problems with the way they spend money. It’s just that simple.”