Outlook: Congress Returns for a Tough September

Lawmakers have a month to reach a deal to keep the government open and raise the debt limit. And they’ll need to approve relief money for Hurricane Harvey almost immediately.

AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster
Alex Rogers
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Alex Rogers
Sept. 4, 2017, 8 p.m.

After failing to accomplish their top priority to repeal and replace the Affordable Care Act, congressional Republicans left Washington in August defeated and demoralized. But rather than returning refreshed, members will come back on Tuesday with the resolve only to react.

Lawmakers are now staring at a dizzying array of deadlines with little time to meet them. They must pass a bill to keep the government running, raise the debt limit, and extend some expiring programs by the end of September. They also will send billions of dollars in federal aid to repair Texas and Louisiana after the devastation of Hurricane Harvey.

Those requirements will further push back the Republicans’ desire to pass “historic” tax reform, which President Trump and House Speaker Paul Ryan have pressed to do this year. With little time and no bill, some congressional aides and lobbyists tracking the debate expect tax reform to be pushed to next year.

The president is entering the fall weakened by his own actions. In August, Republican members of Congress had to again denounce or sidestep remarks the president made, after Trump said there were “very fine people on both sides” of a violent rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, where white supremacists protested the city’s plan to remove a statue of Confederate general Robert E. Lee. Senior White House officials also sought to distance themselves from the president, including Gary Cohn, the president’s top economic adviser, who reportedly drafted a resignation letter before changing his mind.

The president also drove a wedge further between himself and those he needs to help advance his vision. He reportedly berated Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell in a private phone call, and he publicly attacked GOP Sen. Jeff Flake, who’s up for reelection in Arizona, as weak on immigration. From his perch at the top of Breitbart News, Steve Bannon, the recently departed White House chief strategist, will only encourage the president to exacerbate the intraparty fight.

After undergoing brain-cancer treatment, Sen. John McCain, the Armed Services chairman, is expected to return to the Senate this week to lead negotiations for the annual National Defense Authorization Act. In August, Republican Sen. Rand Paul blocked the bill to try and get votes on his amendments regarding indefinite detention and war authorization. The Senate will begin voting Tuesday on nominations, including for a U.S. district judge, before moving onto NDAA.

In the House, members’ attention will immediately turn to keeping the government funded, an effort made even more consequential by the ongoing flooding and devastation in Houston caused by Hurricane Harvey.

Congressional leaders are awaiting guidance from the White House on the cost of a potential supplemental disaster-relief spending package, and they are not yet sure whether that will be included within the sweeping omnibus package the House plans to pass this week or just alongside it. That guidance from the Trump administration may not even come this week, but if it does, leaders have vowed to move on it quickly.

Meanwhile, the Rules Committee will walk through a minefield of amendments to the spending bill that covers all aspects of government, from choking off funding to Obamacare to restricting enforcement of environmental regulations and labor laws. The committee will look to keep controversial amendments to a minimum, as Republican leaders will almost certainly need Democratic votes to pass the final bill.

Here’s what else is on tap:

DEFENSE AND FOREIGN POLICY

The Senate Foreign Relations Committee returns from recess with a Wednesday morning hearing examining “priorities and challenges in the U.S.-Turkey relationship.” That afternoon, the Senate State and Foreign Operations Appropriations Subcommittee will mark up its fiscal 2018 spending bill.

Two House Armed Services subcommittees will team up for a joint hearing Thursday on Navy readiness, casting a critical eye on the circumstances surrounding the recent deadly collisions involving the USS Fitzgerald and the USS John McCain. Witnesses will include Navy Vice Adm. Thomas Rowden, commander of naval surface forces, and Government Accountability Office official John Pendleton.

Also on Thursday, the House Foreign Affairs Committee will examine the budget for the State Department’s counterterrorism bureau. The Senate Select Intelligence Committee will have a closed hearing on “intelligence matters.” And with tensions high between the U.S. and North Korea, the Senate Banking Committee will hold a hearing on sanctions and other policy options regarding the isolated Asian nation.

ENERGY AND ENVIRONMENT

On Wednesday, a House Energy and Commerce subcommittee has a hearing on Environmental Protection Agency oversight, focusing on unimplemented recommendations from the agency’s inspector general and the GAO. The same day, a House Natural Resources subcommittee will examine a handful of bills, including the State Mineral Revenue Protection Act and the Federal Land Freedom Act.

Thursday brings a Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee hearing on multiple Trump administration nominees, including Joe Balash as assistant Interior secretary for land and minerals management; and Richard Glick and Kevin McIntyre to be members of the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission.

HEALTH CARE

Lawmakers return with a hefty health care to-do list, including stabilizing the Obamacare marketplaces and discussing the need to renew funding for the Children’s Health Insurance Program.

Now that the Republican repeal-and-replace plan has collapsed, the Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee is trying to piece together a market-stabilization bill. On Wednesday, the committee will hold its first hearing with state insurance commissioners from Oklahoma, Washington, Tennessee, Pennsylvania, and Alaska. The following day, the committee will have another hearing with governors from Massachusetts, Montana, Tennessee, Utah, and Colorado.

Senate lawmakers will also be tackling spending for Health and Human Services. The Labor, Health and Human Services, Education, and Related Agencies Appropriations Subcommittee will be holding a markup of its appropriations bill Wednesday. The full committee will then mark up the bill on Thursday.

In the Senate Finance Committee, lawmakers are set to hold a Sept. 7 hearing on the future of CHIP, a federal and state program that provides coverage to more than 8 million low-income, uninsured children. The CHIP program, up for renewal by Sept. 30, is typically a noncontroversial vote, but this time lawmakers may use the must-pass bill as a vehicle to eliminate one or more Obamacare taxes, such as the medical-device tax.

Meanwhile, House lawmakers will be addressing different kinds of health care problems this week. The Ways and Means Committee on Wednesday will have a hearing on challenges facing the Social Security Administration when determining eligibility for disability benefits.

On Thursday, the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee’s government-operations subcommittee will have a hearing examining the shipment of illicit drugs in international mail.

TAXES

Hill staffers and administration officials have spent August working on the details of their upcoming tax-reform plan, but they’re not ready to show their hand.

Analysts say to expect a couple of tax-reform hearings in September, but it’s unlikely the public will see legislative language. Instead, Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin told The Wall Street Journal last week that GOP tax writers will soon release a more detailed outline compared to the brief statement of principles released in late July. With the new outline in hand, tax committees would then put “flesh and bone” on a plan in the coming weeks. Tax analysts are hoping that the more detailed outline will address a few key details, like target tax rates and whether some provisions—like the proposed plan to let companies fully expense capital investments—will be permanent or temporary.

Lawmakers must balance two competing elements this month. They must release enough information to signal to the public that work is progressing on a tax bill, but offering up many of the difficult trade-offs—like eliminating popular deductions—early in the process would give ammunition to opponents of the GOP plan.

Mnuchin’s interview came just a day after Trump kicked off his tax-reform campaign in Missouri, attempting to sell the idea that his yet-unfinished plan would boost the middle-class economy. The speech offered little in terms of details, but Trump singled out Democratic Sen. Claire McCaskill of Missouri, saying if she didn’t vote to advance a tax-reform bill, constituents should vote her out of office.

Trump is supposed to continue his public campaign on tax reform through September, and by targeting McCaskill, he signals that the GOP may press Democrats to vote for a tax bill, despite long odds. In a statement in early August, Senate Democrats set conditions on tax reform that the GOP is unlikely to meet: that the bill doesn’t cut taxes on the wealthy, and that Republicans avoid using budget reconciliation to advance the measure. Only three members of the Senate Democratic Caucus didn’t sign the letter: Sens. Joe Manchin of West Virginia, Joe Donnelly of Indiana, and Heidi Heitkamp of North Dakota, all of whom are up for reelection in states won by Trump. If the GOP does pick off a few Democrats, it will likely be vulnerable red-state senators.

TECHNOLOGY

The House is set to vote as soon as Wednesday on legislation designed to speed the deployment of driverless cars onto America’s roadways. The Self Drive Act would dramatically increase the number of vehicle-safety exemptions automakers may obtain, allowing manufacturers to deploy up to 25,000 driverless vehicles in the first year and raising the annual exemption cap to 100,000 vehicles by the end of three years. The bill would also preempt the current patchwork of state and local regulations on autonomous vehicles, instead placing the industry under a single federal safety and regulatory framework crafted by the Transportation Department and the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. The Self Drive Act is expected to face little opposition, having passed unanimously out of the House Energy and Commerce Committee in late July.

The Energy and Commerce panel has indefinitely delayed a much-touted Sept. 7 hearing on possible net-neutrality legislation, in which members had been expected to hear from many of America’s top tech executives. Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg and Amazon’s Jeff Bezos were among the several CEOs who had already declined to attend the hearing. The delay appears designed to allow public and private stakeholders to continue private negotiations on a potential legislative solution to the long-running net-neutrality fight, which has consumed the Federal Communications Commission in recent years. The House committee will instead hold a Sept. 7 hearing on the challenges facing broadcasters as they comply with the FCC’s spectrum-repacking mandate. FCC Chairman Ajit Pai warned earlier this summer that Congress will need to allocate more funds in order to fully reimburse broadcasters as they begin the multiyear process of moving to new channels.

The Senate Commerce Committee will hold a hearing Wednesday on waste, fraud, and abuse in the FCC’s Lifeline program, which provides subsidies to low-income consumers of telephone and broadband internet services. Allegations of abuse have dogged the program for years, and a June report by the GAO found repeated failures of oversight and accountability in Lifeline’s administration and implementation. Pai suspended some Lifeline authorizations earlier this year, arguing that the FCC needed to first ascertain how to best protect the program from further waste, fraud, and abuse.

WHITE HOUSE

Trump’s planned primary focus this week is tax reform. On Tuesday, he will meet with the group being called the “Big Six,” which has been working on coming up with specifics to present to Congress. The group includes the Speaker of the House, the Senate majority leader, the chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee, chairman of the Senate Finance Committee, the National Economic Council director and the secretary of the Treasury. On Wednesday, the president will meet with the bipartisan congressional leadership. Then, he will travel to Mandan, N.D., to try to put pressure on Democratic Sen. Heidi Heitkamp to support the Republican proposal. On Thursday, he will meet at the White House with the emir of Kuwait, Sheikh Sabah al-Ahmad al-Jaber al-Sabah, and will have dinner with Speaker Paul Ryan. Friday, he will leave for Camp David.

Daniel Newhauser, Erin Durkin, Casey Wooten, Brendan Bordelon and George E. Condon Jr. contributed to this article.
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