December is going to be a wild month on Capitol Hill. As lawmakers return Monday from Thanksgiving, they’ve got so much on their plates that many are holding off on making Christmas plans.
Republicans are pushing for the biggest overhaul of the tax code in three decades in the same bill that they’re trying to knock down a core pillar underpinning Obamacare, and they expect to do it with no Democratic votes. But they’ll need support from the other side of the aisle to avoid a government shutdown on Dec. 8, and the minority leaders are determined to get concessions – perhaps on immigration.
By the end of 2017, a year that will be remembered for a surprising lack of legislative results despite unified GOP control of government, Congress also needs to find a compromise to reauthorize the law that allows for foreign intelligence surveillance on U.S. soil.
Meanwhile, the dark clouds from cascading sexual harassment scandals hang over the Hill and everyone is wondering who will be the next. A special election in Alabama on Dec. 12 could narrow the GOP’s already small margin for error in the Senate.
Here’s a brief rundown of what to watch on the Hill in the weeks ahead:
1. Keeping the lights on: “Both sides have floated the possibility of a short-term stopgap to push negotiations (from Dec. 8) until just before Christmas. But informal talks have been abortive,” The Post’s Mike DeBonis and Ed O’Keefe report. “The first step toward a resolution will be reaching an agreement on government spending levels for 2018 and perhaps beyond, lifting caps imposed under a bipartisan 2011 budget deal. . . . Under current law, Congress may appropriate no more than $549 billion for defense programs and $516 billion for nondefense programs next year, a cut from current levels. But the Trump administration and defense hawks want to boost defense spending to more than $600 billion, and Democrats are demanding a dollar-for-dollar increase in nondefense spending.
“Talks before the Thanksgiving holiday focused on raising spending levels somewhere between $180 billion and $200 billion over the next two fiscal years combined but went nowhere . . . Aides from both parties warned that if a spending accord is not reached this week, hopes for the passage of a broad appropriations bill before Christmas would be dim.”
2. The House and Senate must reconcile their tax plans.
Senate Republicans are seriously considering several last-minute changes to their tax bill to win over reluctant lawmakers ahead of critical votes planned for this week. “The lawmakers attracting the most concern from leadership and the White House are Sen. Ron Johnson, R-Wis., and Steve Daines, R-Mont., who say the current version of the bill favors corporations over other businesses,” The Post’s Damian Paletta reports. “There are numerous members demanding changes, and their needs don’t all overlap. Together, the requests put Republican leaders in a difficult position, as they attempt to accommodate individual holdouts on a one-off basis without losing other members or creating a situation in which the bill collapses under the weight of disparate demands. At least six GOP members have raised concerns about specific provisions in the GOP tax bill, though none has flatly said they plan to vote against it this week. Johnson came closest, saying he opposed the measure but later suggesting he could support it with changes.”
Another change under consideration: Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, wants to allow Americans to deduct $10,000 in local property taxes from their taxable income. “This provision was in a bill that passed the House . . . but it is not in the Senate bill. Though Collins has voiced the most concerns about its absence, other members have quietly said they also want the change to be made,” per Damian. “Making this change could cost more than $100 billion over 10 years and would probably require Republicans to find new money to offset it. . . . The total size of the tax plan cannot be more than $1.5 trillion over a decade, so adding new benefits could force Republicans to find ways to raise additional revenue. Presently, they only have roughly $80 billion in wiggle room to use, a small sum because many of the changes would be spread out over 10 years.”
3. Several big health-care issues are in the mix.
Democrats would like for the year-end spending bill to stabilize the insurance markets by restoring the cost-sharing reduction payments that President Donald Trump cut off, and there’s a bipartisan measure co-authored by Sen. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., that would accomplish this. But many on the right see it as a bailout for insurance companies, and Democrats say they won’t back a CSR fix if it’s paired with a repeal of the individual mandate – a provision that continues to be in the Senate GOP’s tax bill.
New estimates from the Congressional Budget Office find that the Senate tax plan hurts the poor even more than originally thought.The main reason the poor get hit so hard under the CBO analysis is because they would receive less government aid for health care. The Post’s Heather Long explains: “By 2019, [the CBO believes that] Americans earning less than $30,000 a year would be worse off under the Senate bill . . . By 2021, Americans earning $40,000 or less would be net losers, and by 2027, most people earning less than $75,000 a year would be worse off. On the flip side, millionaires and those earning $100,000 to $500,000 would be big beneficiaries[.] . . . CBO has calculated that health insurance premiums would rise if this bill becomes law, leading 4 million Americans to lose health insurance by 2019 and 13 million to lose insurance by 2027.”
Separately, Congress allowed the Children’s Health Insurance Program to lapse on Sept. 30 and must reauthorize it to prevent another 9 million kids from losing coverage. States have been using stop-gap measures to keep programs going, but several say they cannot keep doing so for much longer.
4. Offsets for disaster appropriations? The White House has asked for another $44 billion to finance the federal response to this year’s natural disasters – including three hurricanes and the wildfires in the West – but it wants Congress to offset this new spending with cuts elsewhere. That’s going to be a non-starter.
5. An immigration deal is unlikely, but Democrats will push for protecting the “dreamers.”
A growing number of liberals say they won’t vote for any year-end spending deal that doesn’t provide legal protections to the hundreds of thousands of undocumented immigrants who were brought to the the United States as children. Democratic leaders face a lot of pressure from their rank-and-file members and those likely to run for president in 2020, such as Sen. Kamala Harris, D-Calif., to prioritize “the dreamers” in spending negotiations.
Republicans have said they want to fix the problem created by Trump ending the DACA program before a March deadline that the White House has set. They envision a compromise that would also fund Trump’s border wall.
6. FISA must be reauthorized: The federal law that allows intelligence agencies to gather foreign electronic communications on U.S. soil will expire Dec. 31, potentially taking away what the National Security Agency has called “the single most important operational statute” at its disposal unless Congress acts to renew it. “Several lawmakers want to constrain the government’s authority to search intelligence gathered under the program for information about Americans,” per Mike and Ed. “While there are bipartisan bills to revise and extend the law, no agreement has been reached to advance them.”
7. Punting on Iran? “Congress also is under pressure to decide whether it wishes to reimpose sanctions on Iran that were lifted as part of the 2015 nuclear deal, following Trump’s October declaration that Tehran was not in compliance with the pact’s terms,” Mike and Ed note. “The 60-day window for Congress to decide expires in December, but leading Republican senators have already indicated a preference to maintain the deal while passing new legislation to keep Iran from developing a nuclear weapon once the deal expires. That still sets up a potential January deadline for action on Iran, as Trump must continue to waive certain sanctions at that point to keep the nuclear pact intact.”
8. Senate Republicans are officially blowing up the blue slip this week for circuit court nominees, ending a century-old tradition. President Barack Obama and Democrats, when they were in charge, respected the long-standing prerogative of senators to block nominees they don’t approve of from their home states. That’s one reason there are so many vacancies. But Judiciary Committee Chairman Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, bowed to pressure from the White House and scheduled confirmation hearings for two appellate courts’ nominees where a home state senator had not returned the blue slip.
Brookings senior fellow Sarah Binder explains on The Post web site how “shredding blue slips empowers the White House”: “Grassley’s move undermines Democrats’ parliamentary ability to block Trump nominees in the Senate – even when the American Bar Association deems Trump’s picks unqualified for the bench, as has happened with four of 58 nominees. As a result, Trump is likely to nominate candidates more quickly than previous presidents. . . . And it raises the risk for Republicans that, in turn, when Democrats next win control of the chamber, they will eliminate blue slips altogether. In the Senate, what goes around eventually comes around.”
9. Dealing with the pervasive culture of sexual misconduct:
“Congressional leaders are under increasing pressure to respond swiftly to sexual misconduct allegations involving prominent members, following an outcry from female lawmakers who believe their male colleagues are being treated more gently than offenders in the private sector,” The Post’s Paul Kane and Ben Guarino report. “In recent days, both parties have faced allegations against prominent male members, with ethics inquiries into harassment opened against Rep. John Conyers Jr., D-Mich., and Sen. Al Franken, D-Minn. The political future of Rep. Joe Barton, R-Texas, was thrown into question when nude photos of the congressman surfaced on social media, and a former girlfriend said he had threatened to report her to the Capitol Police if she exposed his behavior.
“The first sign of intensifying pressure on leadership came Sunday, when Conyers, the longest-serving member of Congress, stepped aside as the top Democrat on the House Judiciary Committee. Behind the scenes, House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., had tried to guide Conyers to give up the leadership post, according to a senior Democratic aide familiar with the process. Conyers’s resistance to the effort was backed by some members of the Congressional Black Caucus, which Conyers co-founded more than 45 years ago. On Sunday, Pelosi appeared on NBC’s “Meet the Press” and struggled to handle questions about Conyers, 88, a onetime civil rights leader. At first, Pelosi, the first female House speaker, stressed that he needed to have ‘due process’ and called Conyers ‘an icon of history.’ Then she hinted that eventually Conyers would ‘do the right thing.’ By lunchtime, Conyers announced he would step down from the committee post.”
The House will vote this week on a measure co-sponsored by Reps. Jackie Speier, D-Calif., and Barbara Comstock, R-Va., that would require mandatory training on harassment and discrimination for all lawmakers, staff and interns who work in Congress.
— Sen. Al Franken, D-Minn., plans to return to work Monday after breaking an eight-day silence following accusations of “forcibly kissing” a fellow USO entertainer in 2006. “I’ve let a lot of people down and I’m hoping I can make it up to them and gradually regain their trust,” said Franken, who spent Thanksgiving week at his daughter’s home in Washington with his wife and grandchildren. He told the Star Tribune’s Jennifer Brooks that he hopes his experiences – and an ethics investigation into his behavior – will eventually make “a positive contribution to the conversation, so I can be a better public servant and a better man.”
But he pushed back against allegations from multiple women that he groped them as he posed for pictures with them, contending that he poses for “tens of thousands” of such pictures and would “never intentionally” touch anyone inappropriately. “Franken said he has spent the past week ‘thinking about how that could happen and I just recognize that I need to be more careful and a lot more sensitive in these situations,'” per the Star Tribune. “Asked whether he expects any other women to step forward with similar groping allegations, Franken said: ‘If you had asked me two weeks ago, ‘Would any woman say I had treated her with disrespect?’ I would have said no. So this has just caught me by surprise . . . I certainly hope not.'”
— Tuesday will be especially important in setting the mood for the rest of the month. Trump is going to the Capitol to talk with Senate Republicans about taxes over lunch. Later in the day, he’ll meet with the Big Four: Paul Ryan, Mitch McConnell, Chuck Schumer and Pelosi. When the group met in September, the president surprised his own aides and frustrated GOP leaders by cutting a deal with “Chuck and Nancy” to raise the debt ceiling and pass a short-term spending bill to fund the government into December. They felt like he got rolled. Trump is unpredictable, leaving the key players on both sides to wonder what his mood will be when the delegation from the Capitol arrives for the sit-down.
The New Yorker’s Ryan Lizza argues that December could be the month that makes or breaks the Trump presidency: “Year one is when Presidents usually make their mark[.] By the second year, a President’s legislative agenda becomes complicated by the hesitancy of members of Congress to take risky votes as midterm elections approach, particularly if a President is unpopular. The math is stark: on average, modern Presidents have historically lost thirty House seats and four Senate seats in their first midterm elections. Trump’s first year has been different. He has a record low approval rating. He is mired in scandal. [And] he looks like a President in his eighth year rather than one in his first. . . . He is unique among modern Presidents in that he has no significant legislative accomplishments to show for ten months after taking office.”
— Notably absent from the agenda: Restricting bump stocks or closing the domestic violence loopholes in the gun laws.