Don't forget, Congress: You gotta fund the government

@CNNMoney September 12, 2011: 4:57 PM ET
Congress must pass these bills

Congress is facing a rapidly approaching deadline to fund the government and extend the highway construction program.

NEW YORK (CNNMoney) -- Congress has some work to do.

The clock is once again winding down on a few critical pieces of legislation that require the attention of lawmakers.

The consequences of inaction? A government shutdown, a drop-off in road construction and the expiration of a gasoline tax that brings in billions used to maintain the nation's highways.

Congress has to authorize funding for government agencies before the start of the new fiscal year on Oct. 1. If nothing happens, funding will expire and the government will shut down.

Separately, lawmakers have to extend the federal highway program, which includes an 18.4 cent tax on gasoline. A failure to do so would mean less funding for highway construction -- at a terrible time for the economy.

Given that Congress hasn't really done much all year, the flurry of deadlines is cause for worry. After all, this is the same Congress that used every available minute to raise the debt ceiling in August.

But don't reach for the panic button quite yet. There is actually some good news.

National debt: What you need to know

Late last week, key lawmakers struck a deal on a measure that would extend funding for highway transportation and allow the gasoline tax to be collected into next year.

The bill still has to work its way through Congress, but leaders on both sides of the aisle have pledged their support.

And after fighting to the bitter end earlier this year over 2011 federal funding levels, lawmakers appear resigned to opening the fiscal year with a short-term funding measure called a "continuing resolution."

Congress frequently relies on continuing resolutions when they are unable to prepare a full budget before Oct. 1. This time around, some of the hard work was done during when the debt ceiling debate, which set overall spending caps for fiscal year 2012.

Even with those caps in place, lawmakers still have to decide funding levels for agencies and programs that fit within the budget.

If they desired, Republicans could throw a wrench into that process by pressing for spending levels below the caps. But there doesn't seem to be much appetite for that fight -- which would be highly contentious.

"We would try always to go below it," House Majority Leader Eric Cantor said Monday. "But the risk of bringing about brinkmanship or another potential shutdown is not something that we need right now."

Why not?

"It's not something that would be helpful, that would create jobs and regain confidence," he said. To top of page

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