House Speaker Paul Ryan (left) and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell will have a packed schedule when Congress returns this week. Pablo Martinez Monsivais/AP
Lawmakers have less than two weeks of legislative days to head off a government shutdown, raise the nation’s borrowing limit and provide financial assistance in the aftermath of Hurricane Harvey.
Congress is back after a monthlong break, although it may not have seemed like Washington was on vacation based on the pace of political news in August.
The racist protests in Charlottesville, Va., a historic hurricane in Texas, White House staff firings, the president picking fights with GOP leaders, a revived Afghanistan military strategy and a controversial presidential pardon of former Sheriff Joe Arpaio, each in their own way is testing the relationship, trust and expectations surrounding what President Trump and Congress can accomplish this year.
Republicans are hoping for a comeback after a disappointing first half of 2017, when unified GOP control of Washington yielded little in terms of major legislative accomplishments.
The goal is an ambitious overhaul of the entire federal tax code that aims to lower rates for every business and household in America. Republicans have pledged to have it signed into law by the end of the year.
But first, Washington has to avoid another round of self-inflicted, familiar crises, address impending deadlines and resolve unanticipated legislative demands before Sept. 30, the end of the fiscal year. The Jewish holidays also truncate this month’s legislative schedule, giving lawmakers just 12 days to tick off the following to-do list:
1) Keep the government running: The federal government runs out of money Sept. 30, so Congress has two options:
a) Approve new spending bills for next year, or
b) Approve a stop-gap measure to keep the government running on autopilot until lawmakers can reach a deal. A stop-gap is most likely, but Trump last month suggested he could veto a spending bill if it doesn’t include money to begin construction of a wall on the U.S.-Mexico border. His threat seems less likely in the wake of Hurricane Harvey, but until a new spending bill is signed into law, uncertainty will remain.
2) Avoid the first-ever default: Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin told Fox News the Trump administration is asking Congress to approve the debt-limit increase as part of the emergency funding bill for hurricane relief efforts.
“The president and I believe that it should be tied to the Harvey funding,” Mnuchin said. “Our first priority is to make sure that the state gets money. It is critical. And to do that, we need to make sure we raise the debt limit.”
House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., and Senate Minority Leader Charles Schumer, D-N.Y., indicated in a joint statement they’d be willing to assist the administration to that end. “Providing aid in the wake of Harvey and raising the debt limit are both important issues, and Democrats want to work to do both,” they said.
That approach could put the administration on a collision course with conservatives. Freedom Caucus Chairman Rep. Mark Meadows, R-N.C., has already warned the administration to keep the two issues separate. “The Harvey relief would pass on its own, and to use that as a vehicle to get people to vote for a debt ceiling is not appropriate,” Meadows told The Washington Post last week.
Republicans in Congress like to try to use the debt limit as a leverage vote to extract concessions elsewhere — like spending cuts. But since Republicans are certain to need Democratic votes to approve the increase, their leverage is limited.
3) Begin Hurricane Harvey relief efforts: The House is scheduled to vote this week on the first installment of what are expected to be several aid packages to assist Hurricane Harvey recovery efforts. Last Friday, the administration formally requested an initial $7.85 billion for Harvey response and recovery efforts. Harvey relief should be relatively easy to approve, but conservatives in the past have griped about disaster spending without offsets elsewhere in the budget. Some conservatives are also warning party leaders not to add Harvey relief to any other must-pass legislation, like the debt limit, which the White House wants to do.
4) Renew the National Flood Insurance Program: Congress has to vote to reauthorize the flood program by Sept. 30. It’s already $25 billion in debt, and losses from Hurricane Harvey threaten to send it even deeper into the red.
The program is administered through the Federal Emergency Management Agency and provides federally guaranteed flood coverage to nearly 5 million policyholders. Texas’ Harris County, which includes Houston, has nearly 250,000 policyholders. Some lawmakers want to fundamentally overhaul the program, but a broader debate could be harder when Americans are suffering in real time.
5) Renew children’s health care: Congress must reauthorize the popular Children’s Health Insurance Program by Sept. 30 so that states don’t begin running out of money. It covers children up to age 19 whose families earn too much to qualify for Medicaid but are still in need. It’s relatively uncontroversial but more popular among Democrats. It could also be a must-pass vehicle that GOP leaders use to attach less popular legislation — like a debt-limit increase — because Democratic votes will be necessary for passage on this bill as well.
6) Face reality on health care: The Trump administration is keeping the pressure on Republicans in Congress to try to revive the failed effort to repeal and replace the Affordable Care Act. The clock is running out: The special budget rules that Republicans employed to get around the Senate’s 60-vote filibuster rules expire on Sept. 30.
That means Congress has to act or move on. Every indication, at least in the Senate, is that it is ready to move on. Senate health committee Chairman Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., is holding hearings with ranking member Patty Murray, D-Wash., to see whether they can come up with a bipartisan bill to address the immediate needs of the individual health care market.
While those are the must-pass bills on the September agenda, this month will also see work on other legislation and more ambitious goals for this year.
Congress needs to approve the annual defense authorization bill, made more urgent this fall because of the rising North Korea threat and Trump’s new Afghanistan strategy. It is also Arizona GOP Sen. John McCain’s legislation. Action on the bill was delayed so McCain could undergo treatment for brain cancer. He is expected to return to the Senate this month to oversee its expected passage.
Republicans also still need to pass a budget resolution that outlines the broad contours of what they aim to do on the tax code. Republicans are once again planning to use the budget reconciliation process to pass a tax bill, because Democrats can’t filibuster that.
Congressional Republicans spent August trying to promote their tax efforts, although that message was largely ignored amid the natural disaster in Texas and the president’s poor handling of the events in Charlottesville that left a woman dead after a white nationalist rally. If Republicans intend to enact a tax bill by year’s end, lawmakers will need to unveil legislation in the coming weeks to keep it on track.
Congress may also need to add immigration legislation to its 2017 to-do list. The Trump administration is expected to announce what comes next for the Obama-era program that protects children brought to the U.S. illegally by their parents from deportation.
Republican leaders, like House Speaker Paul Ryan, R-Wis., and Senate Finance Chairman Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, are asking the administration to hold off in order to give Congress time to come up with a legislative fix. If the administration moves to end the program, Congress may have to act sooner than party leaders would like on an issue that sharply divides the GOP.
Outside the Beltway, there are two happenings in September that could shake the political calculus in Washington: Sen. Robert Menendez, D-N.J., is due in court to face corruption charges. The trial begins Wednesday in Newark, N.J., and is expected to last six to eight weeks.
Menendez has denied any wrongdoing. If he is found guilty, he will face pressure to resign his Senate seat. But with Republican Gov. Chris Christie in office, Menendez is unlikely to walk away from a safe Democratic seat that could end up in GOP hands in an already narrowly divided Senate.
Down South, Republican incumbent Sen. Luther Strange of Alabama is in a competitive Sept. 26 runoff for the GOP nomination against conservative former Judge Roy Moore.
Trump and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell have endorsed Strange, who was appointed to the seat after GOP Sen. Jeff Sessions was tapped to serve as attorney general. But Moore has an enthusiastic conservative following and could pull off the upset. If so, Democrats believe there’s a glimmer of a possibility to make it a race in the general election this December.