Congressional Republicans, eager to hit the campaign trail to save their imperiled majorities, are starting to narrow their September legislative to-do list in hopes of skipping town early.
But they still have to deal with a handful of looming deadlines, a potential shutdown fight and internal policy tensions — and all on tight timelines.
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Appropriators in both chambers still face numerous policy disputes over controversial issues such as abortion as they work to cut deals on spending bills before the close of the fiscal year on Sept. 30. With this week cut short due to the Jewish holiday, and the House on recess next week, lawmakers have just seven legislative days in which both chambers are scheduled to be in session before the government runs out of money.
Leaders also have to dispense with a massive farm bill that’s been stalled amid a House-Senate clash over food stamps. House Republicans, with President Donald Trump’s backing, are still demanding work requirements for low-income beneficiaries — a controversial conservative proposal that has Senate GOP support but cannot attract enough Democrats to become law.
Failure to pass a new farm bill by the Sept. 30 deadline could be a disaster: Republicans say it’s the best way to counteract the ill effects of Trump’s trade war.
The outstanding differences are so great that leaders have all but decided to sideline one of their original three “minibus” spending packages. The new plan includes passing the remaining two and simply extending funding for the rest of the half-dozen or so departments until early December in a so-called continuing resolution, according to three sources with knowledge of the plan. Senate leaders are still hoping they can finish work on the package and pressure the House to take it up.
Leaders also haven’t ruled out extending the farm bill deadline to give themselves more negotiating time, though Republicans in both chambers say they hope they can avoid that. And tensions between the two chambers have simmered below the surface, as Senate and House Republicans blame each other for their slowed progress.
House members “tend to want to do their own thing, but I think in the end the most important thing is to get an appropriations bill passed,” said Senate Majority Whip John Cornyn (R-Texas). “They’ve got their own prerogative, but the goal is to get the government funded and eliminate the drama.”
Rep. Frank Lucas (R-Okla.), former chairman of the House Agriculture Committee, had his own choice words for the upper chamber on the farm bill. “The Senate has taken a very hard-core position” against work requirements, he said. “You won’t see House language as passed but, by the same token, the Senate is going to have to give. We can’t just maintain the status quo. There is a compromise out there somewhere.”
Meanwhile, GOP lawmakers are on edge, crossing their fingers and praying that Trump doesn’t shut down the government to get his wall before Election Day. Speaker Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) seem confident that won’t happen, the latter predicting last week that there was “zero” percent chance of agencies getting shuttered.
But top appropriators like Senate Appropriations Chairman Richard Shelby (R-Ala.) won’t express the same confidence.
“I would think he would [sign our bills],” Shelby predicted hesitantly. “In my judgment, it’s not in the president’s interest to shut down the government in any way. … That’s something I try to not think about.”
The legislative pile-up comes as rank-and-file GOP members are increasingly worried that they will lose the House this fall and are itching to hit the campaign trail full time. There’s been a notable shift in attitude among House Republicans, who once predicted a “50-50” shot at keeping the majority and now worry they are severe underdogs despite a buzzing economy.
House Republicans say they’re likely to completely cancel their two-week session in October to campaign. Some were even hoping to do the same for the last week of September but now realize that won’t be possible.
There may be less imperative for the Senate to split early in October, with few vulnerable GOP incumbents and a host of nominations to process.
Still, Senate Republicans, who have a more favorable congressional map this fall, are struggling to defend deep-red states after hoping to grow their two-seat majority. A rescue mission is now underway, for example, to save archconservative Ted Cruz in conservative Texas, and races in Tennessee and Arizona are too close for GOP comfort.
Yet in order to get out on the trail, lawmakers have to take care of legislative business first.
To do so, they’ve narrowed their legislative ambitions for the fall. GOP leaders had hoped to pass the three “minibus” spending bills — dispensing with nine of the 12 annual must-do appropriations — before the House leaves for its September recess. That turned out to be wishful thinking, and they’ve decided to focus on getting two over the finish line.
Beyond scaling back appropriations plans, the Senate will not pass another tax cut bill or take another crack at Obamacare repeal, preferring instead to focus on confirming Trump’s Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh. Also on hold are negotiations over provisions protecting staffers from sexual harassment.
The top priority remains funding the government. GOP leaders on Monday unveiled a final deal on their first “minibus” that funds energy and water projects and the VA. They had hoped to dispense with the bill last week but talks stalled over policy riders, including one helping vulnerable Washington state Republicans facing tough races.
The House hopes to vote on the agreement this week, though a looming Category 4 hurricane could upend those plans if votes are canceled due to severe weather.
Even if Republicans pass the first “minibus” this week, both chambers still need to hash out a deal on the most contentious spending package: a military, labor and health care spending bill, where the House’s more conservative view on abortion restrictions clashes sharply with the Senate’s vow not to include “poison pill” riders in spending bills.
By sidelining the third “minibus” bill for now, GOP leaders hope they can get the defense-labor-health funding bill passed, since it includes the bulk of all government funding.
Though the House is in recess next week, work among top appropriators is expected to continue remotely. Spending bill conferences, however, typically proceed more rapidly when both chambers are in session.
That leaves a lot for members to do after the House returns the last week of September, when Congress is also expected to pass a stopgap “continuing resolution” to extend funding for the rest of the departments.
The stakes are huge. Both political parties are eager to tap $36 billion in new funding for domestic and military spending from this year’s budget deal. And if the appropriations process falls apart, there may be less will to do a difficult budget deal next year.
What’s more, if lawmakers are unable to pass their “minibuses,” they could be in for the nightmare scenario: a full shutdown before Election Day.
Trump has sent mixed signals about whether he would veto spending legislation that doesn’t include wall money. GOP leaders know he wants to fight on the issue and has demanded $5 billion for construction, money Senate Democrats object to without a broader immigration deal. But they’ve asked him to delay his shutdown showdown until after the election.
Trump has agreed to the plan, doing so as recently as last week in an Oval Office meeting with GOP leaders. But Trump has been known to change his mind. And there’s a hard-line contingent in the White House that believes the House is already lost and that Trump should fight on spending now, an attitude that worries many on Capitol Hill.
“He has his view that this issue motivates the base, which it does,” said Sen. John Thune (R-S.D.). “But I also think that as we run up into the midterms, particularly in some of these districts that we need to win to keep the House, shutting down the government is not a particularly good strategy.”
Vulnerable Rep. Erik Paulsen echoed that view during a brief hallway interview Friday: “We don’t want drama. We don’t need that.”
John Bresnahan contributed.