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Congress Strikes Budget Deal as House Elects New Speaker

November 2, 2015

During a busy week on Capitol Hill, Congress agreed on a budget deal and elected a new Speaker of the House.

Budget Deal Struck

Last Monday, Washington was taken by surprise to learn of a budget deal that would raise discretionary spending caps for defense and nondefense accounts by $80 billion during FY16 and FY17 and suspends the debt limit until March 15, 2017. By Friday, October 31, both the House and Senate had agreed to the deal and sent the budget bill to President Obama.

The overarching budget agreement finds revenue and savings from a variety for sources, including adjustments to the Social Security disability insurance fund and Medicare payments to health-care providers and by selling parts of the government-owned broadcast spectrum and the strategic oil reserve.

While the deal does not finalize appropriations for federal FY16, it sets up topline funding for the federal government and enables the Appropriations Committee to implement the details.  Appropriators have until December 11 to negotiate funding levels for individual programs.

FY16 budget decisions on student aid programs such as Pell Grants, Federal Supplemental Educational Opportunity Grants, and Federal Work-Study, as well as budgets for federal research agencies, will ultimately be determined when lawmakers finalize these appropriations bills.  Appropriators now have additional breathing room because of the overarching budget deal, with discretionary spending allocated an additional $50 billion in FY16 above the previous level that had been limited by budget caps.

While not final, the Pell maximum award is expected to automatically rise to the projected $5,915 because of a scheduled mandatory increase.

In the meantime, Congress is still trying to piece together a long-term highway bill. The House may bring its version of the bill to the floor this week, but it is unclear how it plans to pay for it.  A short-term extension also passed last week moves the new highway funding deadline to November 20.

The overarching budget deal provides some relief to the uncertainty in the outlook for higher education interests going into late autumn, but questions remain about specific details for FY16.  Additionally, the timing of passage of a tax extenders package remains murky as congressional action on funding for long-term federal transportation needs remains a higher priority.

New Speaker but Ways and Means Chairmanship now Vacant

On Thursday, October 29, Republican Congressman Paul Ryan (R-WI) won the support of 236 members to become the new Speaker of the House.  Ryan stepped up to accept the nomination to be speaker after the surprise resignation of former speaker John Boehner (R-OH), but only after insisting on several conditions related to parliamentary procedure and party unity.

In taking the leadership post, Ryan resigned the chairmanship of the House Ways and Means Committee.  Rep. Sam Johnson (R-TX) will serve as acting chairman of the committee until the Republican Steering Committee determines who will serve as the next chairman.  The Steering Committee will also select a new member to fill a now vacant Republican seat on the committee.

Rep. Kevin Brady (R-TX) and Rep. Pat Tiberi (R-OH) have each expressed interest and begun to make their case with other members about their qualifications to take on the chairmanship.  Both have clearly indicated their desire to be chairman of the Ways and Means Committee and the race is likely to remain solely between the two.


Liz Clark
Senior Director, Federal Affairs