Congress now faces two critical issues with an early January deadline, gun violence and the fiscal cliff, which could lead to an extraordinary session to start off the New Year.
An intersection of the two hot-button issues is the prospect of deep cuts to the nation’s mental health system. But also on the radar is the distinct possibility that fiscal cliff and gun control debates could happen at the same time in Congress in January and early February.
President Barack Obama and House Speaker John Boehner had been in negotiations about across-the-board cuts that would include spending reductions on Medicaid as part of any fiscal cliff deal.
According to a 2005 government analysis, about 60 percent of mental health care nationally is paid for by public funds, with much of that help delivered through Medicaid.
And on Wednesday, President Obama made it clear that easier access to mental health care, along with tighter gun laws and more education efforts, are the key goals of his new gun violence policy.
The Medicaid issue is, in many ways, a stumbling block in any fiscal cliff deal.
Earlier this year, the Obama administration offered to include $100 billion in Medicaid savings as part of a fiscal cliff settlement. But last week, the newspaper The Hill said the Obama team took that offer out of the talks.
But given the aftermath of the Sandy Hook shootings and the renewed push for mental health care programs, it would be very difficult for the Obama administration to cut any Medicaid funds.
In addition, President Obama tied the issues of gun control and the fiscal cliff together at his Wednesday press conference.
President Obama claimed Republicans were too focused on besting him in the fiscal cliff negotiations.
“If this past week has done anything, it should just give us some perspective,” Obama said. “If you just pull back from the immediate, you know, political battles, if you kind of peel off the partisan war paint, then we should be able to get something done.”
President Obama also demanded the gun task force, led by Vice President Joe Biden, deliver actionable recommendations in the next six weeks. Such actions would likely include a national ban on assault weapons.
In normal circumstances, any debate over the Second Amendment would be contentious in Congress.
The additional factors of the outrage over the Sandy Hook shootings, and the very real possibility that the fiscal cliff debate could spill into next month, could lead to a situation where Congress would need to debate both issues, under intense public pressure.
The GOP and Democrats are reportedly between $300 billion and $500 billion apart on a new budget deal that would avoid huge automatic spending cuts and tax revenue gains on January 1. (That gap excludes the $100 billion in Medicaid cuts that likely won’t happen.)
While Congress could delay part of the fiscal cliff cuts and hikes, global markets are on edge about the United States seeing another financial downgrade, and how the failure to reach a deal will affect investors.
Boehner’s Plan B to include a tax hike on millionaires as part of a House bill is apparently dead, after the White House said it would veto any such measure.
Now, Boehner has 11 days to put together another deal, find a way to get the Democrats to agree to it, and get it passed by January 1.
And if the fiscal cliff situation continues into January and isn’t resolved, the vote on a likely assault gun ban would soon follow.
The National Rifle Association will have a press conference on Friday to discuss its plan to contribute to measures to prevent another Sandy Hook situation.
But it’s widely expected the NRA will lobby hard to prevent a strict assault weapon ban from passing through Congress, where Republicans control the House.
Scott Bomboy is the editor-in-chief of the National Constitution Center.
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