December is shaping up to be the cruelest month for Republicans who control Capitol Hill.
Under enormous pressure for a legislative achievement, GOP senators will attempt to follow their House counterparts this week by passing a massive tax overhaul they can send to President Donald Trump by the end of the year.
At the same time, they’re dealing with Democrats to avert a Christmastime government shutdown. And that battle is complicated even further by an emotional fight over the fate of hundreds of thousands of young undocumented immigrants.
“I’m not prepared to go home for the holidays until we get our work done,” Senate Minority Whip Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) said Sunday on CNN’s “State of the Union.”
The to-do list, which Trump will discuss with top congressional leaders at a White House meeting on Tuesday, doesn’t end there. Lawmakers are butting heads over a third tranche of emergency aid for hurricane-ravaged areas. Key surveillance powers used by the National Security Agency need to be renewed. Funding for a health insurance program benefiting 9 million lower-income children is already long expired, with several states close to running out of cash.
And it all comes against a continuous backdrop of sexual harassment bombshells that are ensnaring a growing number of lawmakers — not to mention a dramatic Senate special election in Alabama that could immediately prompt ethics proceedings, a rarity in the chamber.
First up is the tax overhaul. The House passed its plan just before the Thanksgiving break with surprising ease — putting pressure on the Senate to cobble together 50 Republican votes, the same task that stymied GOP senators in the Obamacare battle this summer.
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) is reckoning with multiple dueling factions, all with competing concerns about the tax bill. A bloc of deficit hawks, including Sens. Bob Corker of Tennessee and Jeff Flake of Arizona, is worried the measure would balloon the deficit. Sen. Ron Johnson (R-Wis.) is opposed, at least for now, because of the way the bill treats small businesses.
Other Republicans, including moderate Sen. Susan Collins of Maine and conservative Sen. Jerry Moran of Kansas, aren’t pleased that a health care fight is being injected into the tax mix. The Senate legislation would repeal Obamacare’s requirement that everyone carry insurance, yielding hundreds of billions in savings but potentially destabilizing health care markets.
If Senate Republicans can pull it off, they’ll immediately begin trying to reconcile their bill with the very different House plan.
Then there’s the matter of keeping the government open. As Republicans try to jam through their partisan tax bill, they’ll be in talks with Democrats on a sweeping year-end spending package to fund the government through September. That task always needs bipartisan buy-in, but the immigration dimension makes the challenge vastly more complicated than in past years.
A short-term funding patch delaying the current Dec. 8 deadline at least a couple of weeks is inevitable, since top Hill leaders haven’t even agreed on spending numbers for federal agencies. The appropriations committees would need at least three to four weeks to write funding legislation.
Because it involves a must-pass bill, the spending fight gives House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) and Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) maximum leverage to demand a top priority for Democrats by year’s end: codifying Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals into law.
While not explicitly threatening to withhold votes without a DACA measure, both Pelosi and Schumer have vowed to save the Obama-era immigration program legislatively before lawmakers leave Washington for the year. Moderate Republicans have also urged their leadership to find a fix.
But doing so could prompt a rebellion among conservatives who don’t want to be steamrolled by Democrats on such a contentious issue. The White House is also insisting on funding for President Donald Trump’s border wall with Mexico.
In addition to a huge omnibus spending package, Congress has another pricey funding measure to deal with — aid for hurricane-wrecked states and territories — that many on Capitol Hill say doesn’t go far enough.
The White House has suggested a $44 billion emergency measure distributed to Texas, Florida, Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands for ongoing hurricane relief, as well as money for combating wildfires in the West. Democrats and some powerful Republicans — including Senate Majority Whip John Cornyn of Texas, the No. 2 GOP leader — have said the package is far too small, though they will have to contend with fiscal conservatives who are getting weary of continued spending on aid, particularly if it’s not paid for with other cuts.
Other prime government programs could be temporarily shuttered if Congress fails to act.
One is Section 702 of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, which empowers the NSA to monitor communications without a warrant. That authority expires at the end of the year, and there is bipartisan opposition to a “clean” renewal of the spying powers. There are varying proposals that would extend the programs, but with key reforms.
The National Flood Insurance Program, which has become financially strapped after the spate of powerful hurricanes this year, also needs to be reauthorized by Dec. 8. The House and Senate have dueling proposals to renew the program.
On the health care front, the expiration of funding for the Children’s Health Insurance Program is already causing problems as more states have turned to temporary cash infusions from the federal government to keep the programs running.
House Republicans passed a largely partisan CHIP funding measure earlier this month. Still, CHIP could be a relatively simple fix: One option would be to let funding ride along with a short-term continuing resolution that will need to clear Congress by Dec. 8.
Lawmakers will also face pressure to act on legislation that would stabilize the Obamacare markets after Trump’s decision last month to stop paying so-called cost-sharing reduction subsidies to insurers.
All of this activity could be overshadowed by ballooning sexual harassment scandals on Capitol Hill.
Multiple women have come forward with allegations against Sen. Al Franken (D-Minn.) and Rep. John Conyers (D-Mich.), who have faced calls for ethics investigations or to step aside from powerful leadership posts. On Sunday, Conyers announced that “in light of the attention drawn by recent allegations made against me,” he is stepping down from his post as the top Democrat on the Judiciary Committee. At least one House Democrat said Conyers should resign from Congress.
On the GOP side, Senate Republicans have scoured through essentially every option to try and knock Alabama Senate candidate Roy Moore out of the race, after at least nine women accused him of varying degrees of sexual misbehavior, including when one woman was 14 years old.
Democrat Doug Jones has a shot at an upset in the Dec. 12 election, which would be a political stunner in the conservative state. But if Moore wins, he will immediately face calls for expulsion from some of his own colleagues, and McConnell has promised that ethics proceedings for Moore would begin promptly. That could lead to his eventual expulsion, though doing so would be unprecedented.
To top it off, Rep. Al Green (D-Texas) has promised to force a vote to impeach Trump by Christmas. Green backed away from his first attempt to push the issue to the House floor earlier this fall after private pressure from Democratic leaders.
“Whatever others will do is their choice,” Green said in a speech laying out his impeachment vow. “My conscience dictates that I will vote to impeach. Let others do what they may. History will judge us all.”
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