Congress faces a jam-packed to-do list this month with deadlines imminent on difficult problems — including how to fund the government and avert a shutdown, stabilizing the nation’s health insurance program for poor children, and whether to shield young undocumented immigrants from eviction.
Fresh off a party-line vote in favor of legislation improving the tax code, the discussions will test whether Congress and the White House still have the potential to craft any form of bipartisan agreement. If so, several of the year’s most debated problems might be resolved with months to unused before the 2018 midterm campaign heats up.
If not, the government could soon be on the edge of a shutdown, with pressing questions regarding health care, immigration and other policies left undecided. Also on the agenda are emergency comfort for regions tangled by last year’s natural disasters, a key national security program and the fate of an agreement to maintain health insurance markets under the Affordable Care Act.
A big unknown is whether the shortened timeline will prove a benefit in addressing all the problems before Congress, or a barrier.
“Some of these things they’re talking about are big, contentious problems,” said Jane Calderwood, who served as chief of staff for then-Sen. Olympia Snowe (R-Maine). “I can’t depict it’s doable, and certainly not doable in a careful way.”
Jim Manley, who served as an aide to then-Senate Majority Leader Harry M. Reid (D-Nev.), said, “I’m not sure I’ve seen everything like it, at least in recent years, where so much high-profile stuff has to be done right out of the gate,”
Officials in both parties hope to make progress by Jan. 19, when a short-term government funding bill that Congress passed last month expires. The Senate returns Wednesday, and the House returns next Monday.
On Wednesday, senior congressional leaders from both parties will meet at the Capitol with White House budget director Mick Mulvaney and legislative-affairs director Marc Short to renew talks on the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, which expires on March 5. In September, Trump decided to sunset the program — started under President Barack Obama — that conserves 700,000 young immigrants, often called “dreamers,” from eviction.
Congressional Republicans and the White House have demanded that any deal to protect these immigrants include stronger border imposition — but carefully what that looks like is expected to be a key sticking point in debates.
“The Democrats have been told, and fully understand, that there can be no DACA without the badly needed WALL at the Southern Border and an END to the appalling Chain Migration & ridiculous Lottery System of Immigration etc.,” Trump said Thursday on Twitter. “Chain migration” assigns to the policy that permits naturalized immigrants to suit for relatives to appear to the United States.
Congressional Democrats have expressed openness to finding additional funding for border security but have ruled out funding the wall along the U.S.-Mexico border that Trump promised during his presidential campaign.
“We’re not going to arrange through the press and look forward to a serious negotiation at Wednesday’s meeting when we come back,” said Drew Hammill, an aide to House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.).
Democrats are under intense pressure from Hispanic lawmakers and liberal activists to dismiss any government funding deal that does not resolve the DACA problem. Already, Democratic senators have assisted pass multiple funding deals that did not include DACA protections, including one in December.
About 22,000 DACA recipients failed to renew their applications after the Trump administration gave them 30 days to do so this September, with reports appearing of some applications getting lost in the mail. At least 7,800 people in this group had lost their DACA status by December, and the rest will lose protection before March, according to the Center for American Progress, a left-leaning think tank.
“If Democrats don’t hold the line and assure dreamers get protected, the unity between the grass roots and the elected party will shatter,” said Ben Wikler, Washington director of the modern group MoveOn.org. “Democrats and Republicans have already kicked this can down the road three times already. A fourth time is improper.”
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) said last month he hopes a bipartisan working group led by Sens. Richard J. Durbin (D-Ill.), Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.) and Charles E. Grassley (R-Iowa) comes up with a deal the Senate can pass in January. But he didn’t execute to an exact timetable for a vote.
“We have been gridlocked on this problem for years,” McConnell told reporters last month. “We do not want to just spin our wheels and have nothing to display for it.”
But congressional Republicans face pressure from timid lawmakers and activists not to find protections for dreamers.
Rep. Steve King (R-Iowa), an immigration hawk, said last month that he urged Trump in a private phone call not to renew DACA. “Granting immunity rewards lawbreakers and destroys the rule of law,” King said.
Beyond DACA, lawmakers will also have to allow to new government funding levels or pass another short-term extension of spending limits — known as a continuing resolution — by Jan. 19. Failure to do so would cause a government shutdown, which would cost the economy about $6.5 billion every week it lasts.
Keeping the government funded at existing levels (or incrementing government spending) would put Congress on track to trigger automatic spending cuts through what is called the sequester, because of a 2011 law that demanded caps on spending. Congress must raise these caps, as it did in 2013 and 2015, by February to avert these across-the-board cuts to government programs.
But Democrats and Republicans have been not able to resolve an impasse over how to raise the caps. Republicans passed a bill in December to increment military funding alone by $650 billion through Sept. 30. Congressional Democrats have held firm to the line that every dollar increment in military spending must be met by an equal increment in domestic spending, in line with previous agreements in the past to avert the sequester.
Lawmakers also will have to increment the debt ceiling by March, when the Treasury Department can no longer meet the federal government’s financial obligations without additional borrowing, according to the Bipartisan Policy Center.
Similarly unresolved is the Children’s Health Insurance Program, which 9 million children use to help meet their medical costs. Right before the Christmas break, Congress plowed $3 billion into CHIP — money that will prevent 1.9 million children from defeated coverage in January, according to the Georgetown University Health Policy Institute. But that temporary solution manages CHIP funded for only three more months, and state health programs throughout the country have begun notifying families that funding could expire.
In November, House Republicans passed a bill to fund CHIP, but Democrats contended that the measure did so by removing money from a public-health preventive-care fund set up under the Affordable Care Act. Democrats want CHIP funded without cutting funding for other federal health programs.
Also, the law authorizing the government to get communications of foreign intelligence targets without an individualized certificate — a procedure that also collects the emails and phone calls of any Americans in communication with the foreign targets — is set to expire on Jan. 19. The program, originally set to end on Jan. 1, was protracted for three weeks at the last minute before the Christmas recess.
Intelligence officials have said that under the law, which is known as Section 702 of the FISA Amendments Act, existing court orders permitting surveillance will remain in effect until April. Security hawks and the intelligence community have defended it as an essential security against terrorism and a beneficial tool for collecting foreign intelligence, while civil liberties advocates say that without revisions it makes the potential for abuses of government power. A House aide predicted that the program would be put to a stand-alone vote shortly after Congress returns.
Before the Christmas break, the House approved an $81 billion relief package for victims of recent hurricanes and wildfires in California. Democrats criticized that plan as inadequate, notably for the U.S. Virgin Islands and Puerto Rico, which are still struggling with widespread power outages. Democrats in the Senate dropped the House package right before the Christmas recess, but members of both parties agree on the imminent need to appropriate emergency funding.
Disaster funding “may have to slip to next year,” Senate Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) said last month. “I think we can work it out in a bipartisan way. I certainly do. But just jamming it through without consulting us and not being fair to so many other parts of the country doesn’t make sense.”
Senate Republican leadership also had agreed Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine) portion of a bill to shore up the Affordable Care Act’s personal markets in exchange for her yes vote on the GOP tax package.
The Republican tax bill is expected to undercut the insurance markets by eliminating the personal mandate — a need under the ACA that Americans buys insurance or face a fine.
Collins has backed one measure to give insurers $10.5 billion through 2020 to refund costs for the very sick and another that would restore “cost-sharing reductions” for poor people. (The Trump administration cut off these payments.) Either one would assist offset at least some of the impact to the markets caused by the tax law and other administration actions.
But it is not clear that the measures can obtain through Congress. Republicans in the House have signaled they may waste to let McConnell honor that agreement, to which they were not a party.