It has been quite an eventful few weeks in Washington, D.C., with actions taken that perhaps will give rise to a brighter future on Capitol Hill. House Speaker John Boehner (R-OH) resigned effective October 31 amid persistent attacks from the conservative House Republican Freedom Caucus. His heir apparent, Rep. Kevin McCarthy (R-CA), withdrew his candidacy for the speakership amid criticism of his gaffe concerning the purpose of the House Select Committee on Benghazi. Rep. Paul Ryan (R-WI), the chairman of the House Committee on Ways and Means—and former 2012 vice presidential candidate—was elected Speaker after demanding a “unity” pledge from the various factions of the House Republican Conference. Needing 218 total votes (a simple majority of all House members), Rep. Ryan received 236 Republican votes, with Republican Freedom Caucus-endorsed candidate Rep. Daniel Webster (R-FL) garnering only 9 votes. House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) received 184 votes. Ryan now becomes the 54th Speaker of the House and second in line of succession to the presidency in the event neither the president nor vice president is able to serve.
As if that were not enough drama, on his way out the door Speaker Boehner kept his pledge and called up and passed a series of stalled bills—”cleaning the barn” as he termed it—so that the newly elected Speaker would not have to face divisive issues immediately within the Republican Conference. The measures included reauthorization of the Export-Import Bank, and a bipartisan budget and debt ceiling deal signed off on by the White House and Congressional Republicans and Democrats. The budget deal—the Bipartisan Budget Act of 2015 (H.R.1314)—averts a potential government shutdown and default on the national debt in November by increasing spending caps for two years and raising the debt limit until March 15, 2017. In addition to extending the debt limit, the bill also sets bottom line totals for federal spending until 2017, including a partial rollback of the sequester of discretionary spending for fiscal years 2016 and 2017, by increasing the caps by a total of $80B divided equally between defense and non-defense spending.
The House voted to pass the bill by 266-167 over the objections of the Freedom Caucus and other hardline conservatives. By bringing the bill to the floor, Speaker Boehner violated the so-called “Hastert Rule”—named after former House Speaker Dennis Hastert—that only legislation supported by a “majority of the majority” of the Speaker’s political party should go to the floor. On this vote, only 79 Republicans voted in favor. The U.S. Senate passed the bill by a vote of 64–35 and it is now expected to be signed by the President.
Although the Bipartisan Budget Act sets bottom-line spending levels, it does not implement the spending. That step is currently being accomplished through the Omnibus Reconciliation Bill, which expires on December 11, 2015. Congress must attempt to pass individual spending bills to fund agencies and government programs prior to the expiration date in order to avoid a December shutdown; however, many of these individual spending bills currently contain controversial policy provisions—or “riders”—that are likely to raise the old internal divisions within the Republican Conference, not to mention between Republicans and Democrats.