The Bipartisan Budget Act of 2015 is like a paper map for preventing government shutdown. While it lays out a clear route to where you want to go, it's still depends on the user to get there.
The legislation, which was signed into law on Nov. 2, provides the broad strokes of how to fund the government for the next two years, but Congress still has to decide exactly how it will appropriate funding by Dec. 11 or the government could still shut down. That said, passage of what can be deemed a spending guide of sorts has legislative watchers cautiously optimistic.
"It will provide a small amount of stability and some predictability for the government overall," said Alan Chvotkin, executive vice president and counsel of the Professional Services Council. "There are still some hurdles to overcome between now and Dec. 11. We'll be watching those closely, but having this agreement is far better than not having it."
Among those hurdles is appropriations, in which 12 subcommittees will determine how the funding will be divided, the so-called top-line numbers. If that process proceeds without rancor, then the subcommittees will craft 12 appropriations bills, which then go to House and Senate committees and will likely be amended.
But here's where the potential for impasse materializes. All 12 bills have to pass both houses and be signed by the president to fund the government. But the most recent budget impasses have centered on what are called policy riders, or specific budget amendments within the bills that could court vetoes from the White House.
"This could be a series of landmines, not one mega-one," Chvotkin said. "Throughout the development of these fiscal 2016 appropriations bills, the president has proposed a veto of every single one of them, primarily because of the top-line numbers and the failure to have this budget agreement.
"But every one of those statements of administration policy have laid out administration objections to specific provisions in each of those bills," Chvotkin added.
So if a policy rider seeking to defund Planned Parenthood or the Environmental Protection Agency, for example, draws a veto, the budget process grinds to another halt.
The last challenge will be passing 12 appropriations bills through two houses and on to the president by Dec. 11, but Chvotkin said Congress could alleviate the process by packaging several together in a so-called "minibus bill" or all into one larger omnibus bill. If nothing else, the body is accustomed to last-second budget agreements.
"Deadlines always drive everybody except the Congress crazy," he said. "But for the Congress, a final product one minute before the deadline is as good as a final product one year before the deadline. The deadlines become a significant issue in forcing events, as we saw in the debt ceiling.
"But the deadlines also add a significant challenge for the Congress of not asking too much. Again, President Obama has made it very clear that he would veto appropriations bills, one or more of them, that reach too far on these policy issues."
For federal employees, the Bipartisan Budget Act embodies the name, a two-party crafted bill that is missing a number of the contentious pratfalls that normally bog down budget negotiations, like federal pay raise caps, 401(k) contributions or other unpalatable options for the workforce. But that doesn't mean those won't be tacked on during appropriations.
"Every bill pending in Congress is a potential vehicle for these policy riders," Chvotkin said.