WASHINGTON -- Time is running out, but there's still a simple solution to the twin fiscal terrors Congress seems intent on inflicting on America: Just follow the rules.
The specific rule in question concerns how to pass a budget resolution, something Congress is supposed to do every spring but hasn't for several years. For three years, Senate Democrats blocked the process, arguing for the last two that the Budget Control Act of 2011 sets spending levels so the government doesn't need a budget.
This year, it's been Republicans, led in the Senate by Ted Cruz (Texas) and Mike Lee (Utah). They have blocked the budget process 21 times, saying explicitly that they do not want it to move ahead because it could also resolve the latest debate over raising the debt ceiling.
The way that Cruz, Lee and some other Senate Republicans -- including Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) earlier on -- have gone about this blocking is by objecting to Senate Democratic efforts to appoint conferees to a conference committee between the House and the Senate that would meet to work out the differences between the budget resolutions passed by each chamber.
It sounds obscure and wonky, but under the rules of Congress a budget conference committee can pass measures under what's called budget reconciliation. That's an expedited process that limits debate and, most importantly, cannot be filibustered in the Senate.
Knowing that, Cruz and company have blocked the Senate from going to conference unless the Senate passes a restriction barring conferees from dealing with the debt limit. Cruz argued that he didn't trust leaders in the House to not raise the limit, although they also have not appointed anyone to deal with the differing budget proposals.
The irony is that when Cruz first headed off Senate action back in May, no one was interested in using reconciliation on the budget. Now, even though lawmakers still don't like the idea, budget reconciliation would offer one of the easiest solutions to the current impasse and is a far more likely prospect since tea party Republicans such as Cruz insisted on a standoff that links Obamacare to funding the government.
"Irony abounds," said one House Republican leadership aide.
Another one of the ironies is that many House Republicans want to go to a conference on the budget, not the least of whom is Rep. Hal Rogers (R-Ky.), the chairman of the House Appropriations Committee. Rogers has been hamstrung all year trying to pass spending bills at the levels set in the proposed House budget, a blueprint crafted by Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) that many consider more political than practical.
"I dream of that day when we can have an old-fashioned, around-the-table open conference," Rogers told HuffPost. And why would that be good? "You'd have a final resolution of something, and it's done with everybody's input. It's the way this place was supposed to work."
With the Treasury Department predicting that the government will be unable to pay all its bills under the $16.7 trillion debt ceiling starting on Thursday -- and will be in danger of a historic default -- other Republicans said that moving ahead with a conference committee would be a good idea.
"That would be wonderful," said Rep. Robert Pittenger (R-N.C.).
"I don't have a problem with going to conference on the budget," said Rep. Lynn Westmoreland (R-Ga.). "That could be part of the big deal."
"I think that you need to wrap it up together," said Rep. Jack Kingston (R-Ga.). "I think it's fair to talk about the budget and the CR [continuing resolution to fund government] -- they're almost indivisible anyhow -- and the debt ceiling and the $90 billion gap between the Senate level [of spending] and the House level."
Asked whether his chamber would pursue such a course given the objections of the tea party senators, Kingston said, "I think we would, I really do. Because I just don't see being able to avoid it anyhow."
With so little time left, even a conference committee would be tough, but a simple, short-term extension of the debt limit could buy some more time. That would require all sides -- especially the tea party factions -- to let go of their hostages without any immediate concessions. They would have to trust, Cruz's publicly stated distrust notwithstanding, that party leaders would do their best to reach a good deal using the normal democratic process.
Rogers, despite his own desires, summed up the chances of a conference by saying, "Possibly, but not likely."
Michael McAuliff covers Congress and politics for The Huffington Post. Talk to him on Facebook.