Congress Is Bracing For A "Nightmare" December

Since President Donald Trump took office in January, the GOP Congressional leadership has repeatedly failed to corral the votes needed to transform the president’s legislative agenda into law, largely thanks to the Republicans’ razor-thin majority in the senate, which has bred factionalism and encouraged senators to play hardball to try and strong-arm the leadership into concessions.

This gridlock has persisted all year. But with roughly 15 legislative sessions left between the House and the Senate, lawmakers are facing a seemingly insurmountable list of legislative priorities. Though the legislative battles could push their deadline closer to Christmas.

In any case, the pressure is on for the GOP's Congressional leadership to deliver, or suffer an embarassing black eye that could hurt their chances in next year's midterm election.

The fundamental question now is: Will this force intransigent lawmakers to drop their opposition to key issues like tax reform and passing another short-term spending resolution (or even an omnibus spending bill)? Or will this end in yet another embarrassing legislative defeat?

Concerning Republicans’ top priority – tax reform - Republican lawmakers told Bloomberg they are still committed to finalizing the bill by Christmas as Senator Tim Scott of South Carolina noted “I hope we can get it done by Christmas…if not, we’ll be here through Christmas, looking at the end of the year”.

To have a realistic chance of adhering to Republicans’ self-imposed deadline, the senate will need to pass its version of the bill by the end of the week:

 

 

Unfortunately for Republicans, it won't be that easy. And the likelihood that members of Congress will be able to spend the holidays at home with their families is looking increasingly remote.

Though at least one senator believes the looming deadlines could force the holdouts to surrender.

Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) said the looming deadlines could be just what Republicans need to get things accomplished.

“I think that’s maybe the only way we can get it done,” he told The Hill. “We’re the ultimate do-your-homework-at-the-last-minute crowd."

However, tax reform isn’t the only issue on the agenda: Democrats are pushing to preserve an Obama-era directive sparing undocumented immigrants who were brought to the US as children from deportation. Members of both parties are seeking to reauthorize a federal flood-insurance program needed to help repair some of the damage from Hurricanes Harvey and Irma.

If the Republican-controlled conference fails to pass a bill to keep the government funded past December, we could see Congressional leaders declare an emergency session that could result in the same type of brinksmanship seen in 2011 and 2013 as lawmakers waited until the last minute to reach a compromise to avert a government shutdown.

As the end-of-year deadline looms for many of these provisions, here’s a rundown of the various legislative battles the public should expect to see play out over the next four weeks, per the Hill:

Tax Reform:

Senate Republicans are rushing to pass their tax plan this week, after it was voted out of the Senate Finance Committee along party lines.

 

They have a narrow path to getting the bill through the Senate. With 52 seats, Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) can only afford to lose two GOP senators, if every Democrat votes no; Vice President Pence could break a tie.

 

Sen. Ron Johnson (R-Wis.) became the first Republican senator to say he couldn’t currently support the House or Senate bills, arguing they don’t do enough to help “pass-through” businesses.

 

Meanwhile, several GOP senators have raised concerns about the impact the tax plan could have on the deficit. The Senate plan can add up to $1.5 trillion to the debt over the next decade. If the Senate is able to pass its own bill this week, Republicans will still need to work out a deal in conference committee and pass the final legislation.

Health Care:

Tied closely to the tax plan is a renewed fight over health care.

 

The Senate GOP plan would repeal ObamaCare’s individual mandate, which requires most Americans to buy health insurance or pay a penalty.

 

But GOP Sen. Susan Collins (Maine), a key vote on the tax plan, is warning that linking the mandate repeal and the tax fight is a mistake that could make it harder to get a bill through Congress.

 

"My concern is that if we combine the health care issues with tax reform we make it far more controversial," she told reporters before lawmakers left town for Thanksgiving.

 

The Trump administration is signaling that it’s open to dropping the ObamaCare provision. Mick Mulvaney, Trump’s budget chief, told CNN the White House is “okay with taking it out” if it is an “impediment” to passing the overall legislation.

 

As part of a trade off, Senate GOP leaders have signaled they are prepared to pass legislation from Sens. Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.) and Patty Murray (D-Wash.) that would provide two years of funding for ObamaCare’s cost-sharing reduction (CSR) payments.

Government Funding:

One of the first deadlines lawmakers face is Dec. 8, when government funding will expire.

 

With Congress returning on Nov. 27, they’ll have less than two weeks to craft legislation to a void a shutdown. In the Senate, tax reform is expected to consume much of the first week.

 

Speaker Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) has floated that lawmakers might need to pass a short-term continuing resolution (CR) to give appropriators more time to reach a long-term agreement.

 

But Ryan said the stopgap bill would only last a few weeks. He wants to pass a full 2018 fiscal year funding bill by the end of December.

 

Complicating the timeline for passing a long-term funding bill are the spending caps.

 

Current spending levels are higher than the 2018 caps set by the 2011 Budget Control Act. Without a deal to raise the caps, across-the-board spending cuts would be triggered automatically in late January.

 

Congressional leaders are eyeing a deal to raise budgetary caps by as much as $200 billion over two years, but the agreement is still being ironed out.

Immigration:

The fate of an Obama-era immigration program has emerged as one of the largest hurdles to getting a government funding deal.

 

The Trump administration is nixing the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program, which allows undocumented immigrants brought into the country as children to work and go to school without the fear of deportation.

 

The deadline for deciding what to do about DACA isn’t until mid-March, but Democrats are demanding that Congress take action before the end of the year.

 

Trump and Senate Republicans decided during a closed-door meeting last month immigration would not be part of the spending bill, but House Democrats plan to force the issue.

 

Without Democratic support, it could prove difficult for House Republicans to pass legislation preventing a government shutdown. Several liberal senators are also pledging to oppose a funding bill without a DACA agreement.

Intelligence Reforms (per The Hill):

Another item on the agenda is the reauthorization of Title VII of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA), including the controversial Section 702.

 

The current authorization for Section 702 expires on December 31, and it’s the first time Congress has faced this reauthorization since Edward Snowden’s earth-shattering disclosures about the National Security Agency’s mass surveillance apparatus. Committees in the Senate and House have competing proposals to reauthorize the program. But with the clock running out, Congress once again appears to be poised to jam through reauthorization.

 

Passed in 1978, FISA allows federal intelligence agencies to collect the electronic communications of foreign persons to surveil for certain illicit activities, including terrorism. But not all of the electronic communications collected by the National Security Agency (NSA) are those of foreign persons.

 

According to a 2014 Washington Post report, 90 percent of account holders whose communications were collected were not the intended targets.

Given the discord within the Senate, where moderates, committed conservatives, deficit hawks and Trump-aligned populists have embraced disparate visions for what should be included in the administration’s tax-reform, health-care and government spending legislation.

Meanwhile, Democrats have been steadfast in their refusal to break ranks to support the president’s agenda.

With this in mind, the administration’s ability to accomplish all – or even some – is questionable at best. At worst, the failures could tank the stock market and further dampen business leaders’ and consumers’ hope for a boost to economic growth during the coming years.