Congress returns to work

Many of the pressing issues facing Congress are traditionally polarizing, such as the budget. But Harvey has brought Americans together, and it could do the same with lawmakers as they consider disaster funding.

J. Scott Applewhite/AP
The Capitol is seen on Tuesday, Sept. 5, as Congress returns from the August recess to face work on immigration, the debt limit, funding the government, and help for victims of hurricane Harvey.

After a month-long recess, Congress is back in town to face a jam-packed and consequential calendar. President Trump kicked things off with a tweet, “Big week coming up!” The same could easily be said of this month, and really, the entire fall as it stretches into the new year.

Divided lawmakers are staring key fiscal and legislative deadlines in the face this September, from government solvency to an expiring program for flood insurance, as well as funds for disaster relief in the wake of hurricane Harvey.

Meanwhile, the White House wants a tax overhaul by the end of the year and the president just tossed a new agenda item to Congress: fixing the childhood “Dreamers” immigration program within six months. And this doesn’t even count the surprises, whether they be controversial presidential tweet storms or meteorological ones, another Charlottesville, Va., or something out of North Korea.

“These are the most dangerous and action-packed months for Congress that I can ever remember,” says longtime congressional observer Norman Ornstein, of the American Enterprise Institute, the center-right think tank in Washington.

That’s not to discount opportunities for progress. Harvey has brought Americans together, and it could do the same with lawmakers as they consider disaster funding. And a bipartisan effort to stabilize the health-insurance markets under the Affordable Care Act seems more possible than before the recess, when the GOP effort to “repeal and replace” Obamacare fell flat.

Here’s a look at Congress’s hefty to-do list:

Show me the money

First things first. The House will take up a $7.9 billion hurricane Harvey relief package on Wednesday, as a first tranche of help to a region hit by record flooding. The politics have softened on federal disaster spending since fiscally conservative Republicans – including from Texas – objected to relief for New York and New Jersey after superstorm Sandy in 2012.

The tables have turned now that Texas, a Republican stronghold, has been hit and members more clearly realize that natural disasters don’t respect state borders.

Harvey aid is considered “must pass” legislation, and that makes it attractive as a vehicle for a much tougher vote: raising the cap on the nation’s federal debt.

If Congress, which controls the country’s purse strings, does not raise the debt ceiling by Sept. 29, the government could default on what it owes its creditors – throwing into question the credit-worthiness of the United States, riling the financial markets, and casting doubt on governability in Washington.

Raising the debt ceiling used to be a routine matter, considering that the payments are on expenses already incurred. That changed after the tea party wave of 2010. More fiscally conservative Republicans, alarmed by a federal debt nearing $20 trillion, demanded spending cuts in exchange for their approval to increase the debt limit.

The high-stakes drama resulted in broadly maligned, across-the-board spending cuts that kicked in in 2013, restricting, for instance, growth in defense spending.

The White House doesn’t want another fiscal-cliff showdown, and is pushing to combine a debt-ceiling increase with the Harvey aid, making it hard to vote “no.” But some Republicans are resisting. They don’t want to lose a bargaining opportunity.

Meanwhile, another deadline is bearing down on Congress. Unless it passes a budget by Sept. 30, the end of this fiscal year, the government will have no money to pay many of its workers, resulting in a partial government shut-down that effects non-essential services, such as the national parks.

President Trump threw a grenade into this process when he said that if Congress doesn’t include funding for his border wall in the budget, he would shut down the government. But he’s since pulled back on the immediate threat. Now it looks like Congress will pass a budget resolution that keeps the lights on until December – delaying the anticipated fight over the wall, but not ending it.

Harvey aid, the debt ceiling, the budget. “There are a lot of moving pieces here and they are all dependent on each other,” says Stan Collender, a budget expert in Washington.

The legislative checklist

It’s far from a done deal, but lawmakers are at least exploring a bipartisan solution to the problems with Obamacare’s private insurance markets, where insurers have been dropping out and premiums have been rising.

Insurers are especially skittish because the Trump administration has been paying “cost-sharing” subsidies – which help insurers with high-cost patients – on only a month-to-month basis instead of ongoing payments, creating uncertainty about whether the payments will continue.

Last week, a bipartisan group of governors floated a plan while a bipartisan group of House members is also working on a way to stabilize the troubled exchanges. Five of the governors are expected to appear before the Senate health committee this week. Committee chairman Lamar Alexander (R) of Tennessee says a legislative fix is likely to be narrowly focused on the “cost-sharing” subsidies and on greater flexibility for states.

In a related issue, authorization for the Children’s Health Insurance Program expires at the end of this month. The program helps 9 million low-income kids – not least of which are children affected by the floods. The program has traditionally had bipartisan support but that does not guarantee reauthorization.

Similarly, the federal program for flood insurance and the Federal Aviation Administration also face a Sept. 30 reauthorization deadline.

Add to these essentials a huge Republican priority: a tax overhaul that the White House wants by the end of the year. President Trump is now actively stumping on a major corporate tax cut, a middle-class tax cut, and tax simplification. He met with senior Republican leaders on the issue on Tuesday, but as with health care, Republicans are also divided over the details of tax policy.

There’s also a timing issue. “History is not on the side of great accomplishment in the latter half of the year,” says Ross Baker, a longtime observer of Congress and a professor of political science at Rutgers University in New Brunswick, N.J.

If tax reform legislation were to move this year, members would have had to have made much more progress before the August break, he says. Instead, they got bogged down in health care.

And now, Congress suddenly has another heavy lift on its plate: immigration reform.

On Tuesday, the administration announced that it is ending the Obama-era program that defers deportation of people who came illegally to the country as children under the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, or DACA. The administration will no longer review new applications for legal status under the program after Tuesday, though it will allow people still in the program a chance to renew their permits if they expire before March 5, 2018.

The move kicks the ball over to Congress, which has six months to work out a fix if it wants to save the program. That’s a tall order, considering it was not able to pass a “Dreamers” bill for undocumented children in the past.

“What we’ve got here is a whole set of dilemmas, which make it very difficult for the country,” sums up Mr. Ornstein. “They are not easy to resolve.”

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