Politics

Analysis: Omnibus Bill Signals Policy Areas Congress Will Punt On

Immigration, health insurance and shielding the special counsel among items left out

Members of the House exit the Capitol down the House steps after passing the omnibus spending package. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)

Congress appears ready to delay action indefinitely on a number of pressing policy issues.

The 2018 omnibus spending bill could be the last major legislative package to advance this year, a reality that spurred members in both chambers to lobby leadership to attach their pet project legislation to it.

“We realize it could be the last vehicle before December that has any kind of momentum,” West Virginia Republican Sen. Shelley Moore Capito said.

While it’s possible either chamber could pass standalone policy measures, optimism is low that legislation on more controversial issues will clear both the House and Senate, and earn the support of President Donald Trump.

The omnibus does tackle some pressing issues for members like additional funding to help bolster the security of the U.S. electoral system — but provisions related to hot-button topics including health insurance and immigration were not included. And given the hyper-partisan political environment and upcoming midterms, legislation on those issues is not expected to advance in the coming months.

That means delayed action on, among other things, stabilizing the insurance markets created by the 2010 health care law and addressing the expiration of the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, possibly until after the November elections or longer.

Immigration

Despite a last-minute lobbying campaign by the White House to include a short-term DACA extension in the spending bill, it was ultimately rejected amid opposition from both Democrats and Republicans.

But the issue is not going away. And political tensions over the future of the DACA program are likely to increase deeper into election season.

Democrats on the campaign trail will almost certainly continue to put the blame on Trump for trying to end the program, criticize the White House for undermining negotiations on Capitol Hill, and blast congressional Republicans for failing to act.

House Republicans, facing intense backlash from their political base, are likely to continue to oppose any legislation that doesn’t have Trump’s backing or would lead to anything that could be characterized as mass amnesty for millions of undocumented immigrants, like some of the Senate proposals.

And Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, who already devoted a week of floor time to the issue that yielded no successful legislative vehicle, has given no indication he plans to schedule another floor debate in the coming months.

While lawmakers and the White House continue to discuss a possible compromise, an ongoing court case on Trump’s decision to terminate the DACA program has taken away some of the urgency to act.

The verdict? Pending a major breakthrough, action on immigration could be punted to next year at the earliest.

Health insurance

Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Chairman Lamar Alexander spent months selling the benefits of his health care legislation to his colleagues. The Tennessee Republican touted the potential reductions in premium costs and, along with Maine GOP Sen. Susan Collins, kept the issue at the forefront of the omnibus discussions over the past few weeks.

Ultimately, the legislation, which would have provided $30 billion to a state reinsurance fund over three years and three years of funding for the so-called cost-sharing subsidies, was not included amid objections from conservative Republicans and Democrats.

And the disagreements on the issue are unlikely to go away anytime soon.

“If this debate about the mechanics of how you apply the Hyde language continues to be the Democrats’ point of view, I don’t see how you can ever change the Affordable Care Act without repealing or replacing it,” Alexander said, referring to the law that prevents federal money from funding abortions.

Some Republicans are loath to take any action to stabilize the insurance markets after failing to fulfill an eight-year campaign promise to overhaul the health care law. And Democrats continue to push back against any legislation that they believe either undermines the current law or doesn’t provide enough federal resources to lower premium costs.

While the White House has signaled support for some of the proposed health measures, the Trump administration can continue to take executive actions to overhaul the law.

The verdict? Another year will come and go without Congress passing any major legislation related to the insurance markets.

Shielding Mueller

Democrats likely lost their last chance to try to force Republicans to pass legislation to ensure the investigation into Russian influence in the 2016 elections continues uninterrupted.

No provision was included in the omnibus to protect special counsel Robert S. Mueller III, despite increasing calls from Democrats for such a measure.

Following the firing of FBI Deputy Director Andrew McCabe, Democrats amped up the pressure on Republicans to pass legislation to shield Mueller from the same fate.

McConnell, Speaker Paul D. Ryan and other GOP leaders say they are confident Trump will not fire the special counsel — a move that would surely launch impeachment talks and drive an already chaotic White House to the brink.

“I would love to have seen protection for Mueller, but I’m going to take the majority leader and the vast majority of my Republican colleagues who have commented that they understand … it would be the beginning of the end of this presidency if he were to fire Mueller,” said Virginia Sen. Mark Warner, the top Democrat on the chamber’s Intelligence panel.

Mueller, who is investigating, among other things, possible collusion between the Trump campaign and Russia during the 2016 campaign, has been in the president’s crosshairs since the investigation launched. Trump, according to media reports, has considered firing Mueller. Recent revelations have even prompted some Republicans to begin speaking out.

“We are begging the president not to fire the special counsel. Don’t create a constitutional crisis,” tweeted Sen. Jeff Flake of Arizona, a Trump critic.

The verdict? Congress is unlikely to protect Mueller through legislation. But should Trump do the unthinkable, it would bring Congress to a standstill, cripple the remaining GOP legislative agenda and eclipse everything else in Washington.

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