Congress faces another frantic week as GOP leaders and President Donald Trump wrestle with a possible government shutdown; immigration, tax and gun policies; multiple allegations of sexual harassment against lawmakers; and the probe into Russia’s meddling in the 2016 election.
Funding for federal agencies is set to run out on Friday, but lawmakers don’t really think there will be a shutdown — at least not yet. Still, a pile-up of contentious policy fights coupled with frequent distractions as Trump’s frustration grows with the Russia investigation has many Republicans anxious about the next few weeks.
House GOP leaders have proposed a two-week “continuing resolution” to keep the government open until Dec. 22, arguing they need the funding extension to make progress in bipartisan talks to boost both defense and non-defense spending. They expect they’ll need a second two-week funding bill in late December to get past the holidays, though the odds of a shutdown would drastically increase during that time if a budget deal isn’t close.
Right now, Speaker Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) is short of the GOP votes he needs to pass a CR, though top Republicans believe they will get there by week’s end. But Senate Democrats, who can block any funding bill, could be key to keeping the government open.
Both House and Senate Democrats are demanding that Trump, Ryan and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) reach an agreement to protect hundreds of thousands of young undocumented people known as Dreamers who will lose work permits and deportation protections starting early next year unless an Obama-era program that gave them some security is revived in some form. So far, Trump and Republican leaders don’t want to tie a legislative fix for the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program to a budget deal. This deadlock raises the possibility of a potential shutdown, although the likelihood is low that it happens on Friday, according to multiple House and Senate sources.
Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) and House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) refused to meet with Trump last week after the president said on Twitter there would be no deal on DACA.
Following that high-profile debacle, Schumer and McConnell spoke privately on the Senate floor in a bid to get the budget discussions moving again. The White House has also been working to try to reschedule a meeting between Trump and the “Big Four,” as the top congressional leaders from both parties are nicknamed. Such a meeting could happen in the coming days, according to GOP and Democratic aides.
There have been discussions between Senate Majority Whip John Cornyn (R-Texas) and Minority Whip Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) on a possible DACA deal. Senate insiders said there “other lines of discussion” on DACA as well.
In the House, Ryan and his leadership team have vowed for weeks to keep DACA and year-end spending negotiations separate — at least publicly. Ryan, however, now is getting squeezed by both ends of his conference, with a group of more than two dozen moderate Republicans from swing districts siding with Democrats and pushing Ryan to fix DACA by 2018.
McConnell lashed out at Democrats on Sunday for tying Dreamers to the funding bill. McConnell noted that Trump has until March to make any decision on deportations for Dreamers, and he clearly wants to decouple the issue from the budget negotiations.
“That’s a ridiculous idea. There is no crisis,” McConnell said on ABC’s “This Week.” “The president has given us until March to address the issue of undocumented children who came into the country … and are in a kind of difficult spot. But there’s no emergency.”
McConnell added: “I don’t think the Democrats would be very smart to say they want to shut down the government over a non-emergency that we can address anytime between now and March. That’s a very untenable position.”
Office of Management and Budget Director Mick Mulvaney also downplayed the possibility of a shutdown, but he noted that certain blocs of lawmakers could derail a short-term CR.
“You know, it’s funny to see now that the Republicans are in charge, I think there’s a group of right-wingers in the House who say they want to shut the government down,” Mulvaney said Sunday on CBS’ “Face the Nation.” “There’s a group of Democrats who want to shut the government down over DACA. And there’s a group of lawmakers from some of the hurricane states who want to shut the government down until they get what they want.”
When he was in the House, Mulvaney supported the 2013 government shutdown, which Republicans forced in hopes of getting Congress to defund Obamacare, and he played a key role in a 2011 crisis in which some conservatives balked at raising the federal debt ceiling.
Matt House, Schumer’s communications director, said the burden of keeping the government open is on the Republicans, as they control the White House, House and Senate.
“Everyone knows the Republicans are in charge. If the government shuts down, it will be squarely on their back,” House said.
Even as they wrestle with a potential shutdown, Ryan and McConnell will try to quickly reach a deal on a tax package following the Senate’s passage of a $1.5 trillion tax bill on a party line vote late Friday night.
Discussions have already begun between House and Senate tax writers, and GOP aides said a potential agreement could emerge as early as this week. The two chambers have passed bills that diverge on key issues, including amending the popular mortgage-interest deduction, taxing small businesses and keeping the alternative minimum tax, which Republicans have long promised to kill.
Ryan and McConnell will formally name conferees for the House-Senate tax talks this week.
Russia will also be on the agenda as FBI Director Christopher Wray testifies before the House Judiciary Committee on Thursday.
Trump launched a broad Twitter attack Sunday on the FBI. “After years of Comey, with the phony and dishonest Clinton investigation (and more), running the FBI, its reputation is in Tatters — worst in History!” Trump wrote on Twitter. “But fear not, we will bring it back to greatness.”
Trump added: “Tainted (no, very dishonest?) FBI ‘agent’s role in Clinton probe under review.’ Led Clinton Email probe. @foxandfriends Clinton money going to wife of another FBI agent in charge.” Trump was referring to media reports that a lead agent on the FBI’s probe of Hillary Clinton’s private email server sent text messages to another agent critical of the president.
Michael Flynn, Trump’s former national security adviser, pleaded guilty last week to lying to the FBI, a huge blow to the president and a major step for special counsel Robert Mueller’s criminal probe. Flynn’s plea deal is a sign Mueller’s investigation is intensifying, with a focus on coordination between Flynn and other Trump aides and their interactions with Russian officials during and after the presidential campaign.
The furor over sexual harassment will continue to roil Capitol Hill as well. Longtime Democratic Rep. John Conyers of Michigan is supposed to announce his plans following allegations from three women that he harassed them when they worked in his office. Pelosi and other top Democrats have called for Conyers to resign, but so far he has not done so.
Reps. Ruben Kihuen (D-Nev.) and Blake Farenthold (R-Texas) also have come under fire for harassment allegations, while Sen. Al Franken (D-Minn.) faces an ethics probe over claims that he improperly touched six women. The House Administration Committee will hold a hearing on the issue Thursday. The heads of the House Employment Counsel and Office of Compliance — who have been involved in secret settlements with harassment victims — will testify at that session.
As if that’s not enough, the House will also take up a controversial bill to expand the use of “concealed carry” permits. The “Concealed Carry Reciprocity Act,” authored by Rep. Richard Hudson (R-N.C.), allows concealed carry permit holders to take their weapons into other states that allow such permits. The bill is a top priority for the powerful National Rifle Association, but it is vehemently opposed by gun-control groups and some law-enforcement associations.
The Hudson bill will be paired with a proposal to “fix” the National Instant Criminal Background Check System after it was revealed that a mass shooter in Texas was able to a purchase a gun despite a domestic violence charge.
A third piece of the GOP gun package includes language seeking guidance from Attorney General Jeff Sessions on whether there can be criminal penalties imposed for using a “bump stock” during a crime. Those devices dramatically increase the fire for semi-automatic rifles and were used by the shooter in the Oct. 1 tragedy in Las Vegas, the deadliest mass shooting in U.S. history. There have been calls to ban bump stocks, but so far Republicans in Congress have waited to see whether the Trump administration can handle the issue through new regulations.
Rachael Bade and Brian Faler contributed to this report.
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