As the second session of the 115th Congress kicks off Wednesday, lawmakers are confronted with a daunting January to-do list full of issues they punted on in 2017.
Typically, January is a slow legislative month leading up to the party caucuses’ annual retreats, where lawmakers formally develop an agenda for the year. House and Senate Republicans will hold a joint retreat from Jan. 31 to Feb. 2 at the Greenbrier resort in West Virginia, and House Democrats will huddle the following week in Cambridge, Maryland.
But last year, Congress deferred action on an omnibus spending bill for the current fiscal year and extended deadlines on expiring programs into the new year, procrastinating until at least January on those topics. So lawmakers face the prospect of confronting at least 10 major legislative issues before their party retreats.
1. Budget caps
More than three months into fiscal 2018, Congress is still hoping to pass an omnibus spending bill and end the run of stopgap measures it passed in 2017 to keep the government open. The current continuing resolution expires Jan. 19, and the key to getting an omnibus bill instead of another CR is negotiating an elusive deal to raise the sequestration budget caps.
Speaker Paul D. Ryan will host a meeting Wednesday with Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, Senate Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer, House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, Office of Management and Budget Director Mick Mulvaney and White House Legislative Affairs Director Marc Short to discuss the budget caps and other pressing legislative matters.
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Democrats have continued to call for “parity” in raising the caps, which they’ve defined as a dollar-for-dollar increase in defense and nondefense spending, but Republicans are seeking more for defense. A deal would need to be struck this week for appropriators to have enough time to draft an omnibus before the Jan. 19 deadline, although a short stopgap would likely still be needed.
President Donald Trump wants to strike a two-year deal on spending caps that will allow the government to meet the Pentagon’s needs, White House Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders said Tuesday.
She did not mention a specific funding level for national defense for fiscal years 2018 and 2019, however.
If Democrats are going to give up any ground on the budget caps, it would likely be to extract concessions from Republicans on a legislative replacement for the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program that shelters immigrants brought to the country illegally as children from deportation. Democrats had hoped to address the matter, a top priority for the party, before the end of 2017 but agreed to push the fight off until January rather than force a government shutdown. Still, many Democrats voted against the CR last month in objection to inaction on DACA and other priorities.
Republican leaders do not see things so urgently, given that the program will remain partly in operation until March. However, McConnell has said that if senators and administration officials who have been negotiating on DACA, border security and overhauling parts of the immigration system reach an agreement by the end of January, he will bring it to the Senate floor for a stand-alone vote.
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Trump jumped into the negotiations via Twitter, potentially complicating matters. He tweeted Friday that “Democrats have been told, and fully understand” that a DACA fix cannot occur without his promised border wall and an end to the visa lottery system and so-called chain migration immigration policies that allow permanent residents to sponsor extended family members seeking to enter the United States.
He followed that up Tuesday with a pointed criticism of the minority party on the issue: “Democrats are doing nothing for DACA — just interested in politics. DACA activists and Hispanics will go hard against Dems, will start ‘falling in love’ with Republicans and their President! We are about RESULTS.”
Senate Majority Whip John Cornyn of Texas said Tuesday before departing his home state for Washington that he believes Congress will “get this done before the March deadline, and I hope the president does not extend it because that puts the pressure on us.”
“I think Congress tends to respond when it’s put under pressure,” he said.
3. Health care stabilization
Another legislative matter that has become intertwined with spending negotiations is stabilization of the health insurance markets. GOP Sens. Susan Collins of Maine and Lamar Alexander of Tennessee, authors of two bipartisan stabilization measures, said they plan to offer their bills this month as Congress considers an omnibus spending measure. “Majority Leader McConnell has told us that he will uphold his commitment to schedule and support the legislation,” they said in a Dec. 20 statement.
But House GOP leaders have not made the same commitment. Collins said Ryan told her the House is committed to passing legislation creating high-risk pools and other reinsurance mechanisms similar to the ones proposed in her bill.
But the speaker has not made any promises regarding Alexander’s bill that would fund the 2010 health care law’s cost-sharing reduction subsidies, or CSRs, for two years. The majority of House Republicans oppose funding the CSRs, which are designed to help offset insurers’ costs for reducing out-of-pocket expenses such as deductibles and co-pays for lower-income individuals, because they see it as propping up the 2010 law that they oppose.
Collins made her support for the GOP tax bill, which eliminated the penalty for not purchasing health insurance, contingent on passage of the stabilization measures.
In addition to the CR, Jan. 19 is the expiration date for government surveillance authority under Section 702 of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act. Many conservative lawmakers oppose a straight extension of the current law and want to see a FISA overhaul that would ensure the government cannot spy on American citizens without a warrant. The House Freedom Caucus — in exchange for some of their members voting for the CR in December — secured a commitment from GOP leaders that a FISA reauthorization would be brought to the floor as a stand-alone measure and that their requested amendments would be made in order.
5. Disaster relief
Lawmakers had hoped the latest disaster supplemental — $81 billion in relief for states and U.S. territories affected by last year’s hurricanes and wild fires — would be signed into law before the end of 2017 but the measure stalled in the Senate right before the holiday recess. Schumer said the bill didn’t do enough to help California, Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands, citing the lack of funds for Medicaid, drinking water and infrastructure, among other concerns. Any effort to add additional funds is likely to originate in the Senate given the House already passed the $81 billion measure.
While there is bipartisan agreement on the need to fund a long-term reauthorization of the Children’s Health Insurance Program, the obstacle to doing so has been offsets. The House passed a bill in November to extend CHIP for five years, but most Democrats opposed it because of Medicaid cuts that were included to pay for the funding. While the CR funds CHIP and community health centers through March 31, lawmakers on both sides of the aisle want to tackle the long-term extensions alongside the larger spending bill in January.
“There’s a lot of things that got kicked over to January the 19th,” Cornyn said Tuesday, when asked about CHIP. “Unfortunately, I think politics pervades everything we end up doing in Washington, D.C., and there is a sense that there’s probably more leverage to do other things because CHIP is a must-pass piece of legislation.”
7. Flood insurance
Another reauthorization Congress has to tackle is the National Flood Insurance Program, which expires Jan. 19 along with the CR. The House passed a five-year flood insurance reauthorization bill in November, but the Senate has not acted on it or any of the reauthorization measures introduced in that chamber. Areas of disagreement that remain include the role of private insurers in flood markets, limits on premium increases for policyholders and funding levels for flood mitigation programs.
Democrats are pushing for legislation to ensure the solvency of underfunded pension plans be incorporated into any mass spending package. The Central States Teamsters pension plan, the United Mine Workers pension plan, and more than 200 others are on the brink of failure, Democrats have warned. Senate Republicans have an incentive to address the issue because of its impact in states such as Ohio, Pennsylvania and West Virginia, where they hope to unseat Democratic incumbents in the 2018 midterm elections.
9. Tax extenders
A handful of tax provisions that expired at the end of 2016, including a number of housing and energy-related perks that were not addressed in Republicans’ tax overhaul bill signed into law last month, must be retroactively renewed this month for taxpayers to be able to claim the incentives when filing their 2017 returns. Senate Finance Chairman Orrin G. Hatch introduced a tax extenders bill Dec. 20, but it’s unclear if there is enough support for the provisions to get the measure through both chambers.
10. Sexual harassment procedures
While Republicans and Democrats struggle to reach consensus on the aforementioned issues, they’re likely to easily find agreement on a soon-to-be-released bill to update congressional sexual harassment policies. House Administration Chairman Gregg Harper is planning to introduce a bipartisan bill next week that will overhaul procedures outlined in the Congressional Accountability Act related to filing and settling harassment claims. The goal, the Mississippi Republican said, is for the House to pass the measure by the end of the month.
John T. Bennett and Niels Lesniewski contributed to this report.