Republican members of Congress slinked off to their home districts last month having failed to make good on their seven-year-long pledge to repeal and replace the Affordable Care Act. President Donald Trump spent August vacationing in New Jersey while taking intermittent breaks to – among other things – attack Republican senators for a variety of reasons.
Then there is the devastation caused in Texas by Hurricane Harvey and the urgent need for federal funding to deal with it. And the ongoing Russia investigations – both in Congress and outside of it. And the increasingly uncertain way forward – if that even exists – on North Korea. And Trump’s promise to overhaul the tax code. And the looming deadline to make changes to Obamacare.
Did I mention the need to raise the debt ceiling? Or pass a budget to keep the government from shutting down?
(Democrats, while not faced with the same set of challenges, will have to contend with the corruption trial of New Jersey Sen. Bob Menendez – not to mention a 2020 presidential race that appears to have already begun.)
All of which seems like an ill omen as official Washington returns this week with a series of legislative must-dos that would daunt even an executive and legislative branch operating in perfect harmony.
Below, 10 of the biggest problems Congress and the White House will need to deal with as fall begins.
1. Harvey relief money
The Trump administration is asking for just south of $8 billion in new federal dollars as a sort of first chunk of spending that some are estimating might need to be in the $100 billion range. Despite the deficit hawks in the House especially, it’s hard to see how this funding doesn’t get approved given the horrifying images of damage coming out of Houston over the last week.
2. The debt ceiling
Think of this like paying the credit card bill for the country. Once a non-issue, raising the debt ceiling has turned into a major pinch-point in recent years among conservatives, particularly in the House, who see increasing the nation’s borrowing limit as a sign of fiscal profligacy. Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin has floated the idea of linking the debt ceiling and Harvey aid, which could work. But, for the House Freedom Caucus, that’s government spending on top of even more government spending, and they won’t like it.
3. Government shutdown
If Congress can’t pass a budget to fund the government, the government shuts down – and political disaster ensues for Republicans. The prospect of a shutdown seemed far more plausible a few weeks ago after Trump insisted that if Congress didn’t fund his border wall, he would push for a shutdown. He’s since backed off that pledge, according to The Washington Post. And, with Harvey looming over the country, it’s very hard to imagine congressional Republicans taking their ball and going home – even for a day or two.
Trump – through Attorney General Jeff Sessions – appears likely today to indicate a plan to eliminate the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program if Congress can’t find a solution to it in the next six months. Trump teased the announcement in a tweet Tuesday morning: “Congress, get ready to do your job - DACA!” And Congress – with Speaker Paul Ryan leading the charge – appears gung-ho to do just that. But, as I outlined in my Point newsletter on Monday night, the 2010 votes on the DREAM Act suggest that the road to any sort of legislation that would protect the nearly 800,000 people DACA currently covers is a rocky one.
5. Tax reform
Trump as well as Mnuchin, Ryan, chief economic adviser Gary Cohn and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell are slated to sit down Tuesday to begin hashing out a legislative proposal to make good on Trump’s campaign promise to overhaul the tax code. There’s lots of desire in GOP circles to get this done but, at the moment, very little consensus on the specific proposals that can win majorities. Also, tax reform isn’t a short process – and, from all the reporting on it, the Trump White House is still in the very early stages.
6. National Flood Insurance Program
An arm of FEMA, the NFIP was $25 billion in debt BEFORE Harvey hit the Gulf Coast. There are an estimated 400,000 homes in Harvey’s path that carry flood insurance, and it’s not at all clear whether the NFIP can pay out to those people without a cash infusion. Plus, the NFIP has to be re-authorized by Congress before October 1 or it’s unable to pay out any new claims.
While the main thrust of the criminal investigation into whether members of the Trump campaign colluded with Russia is being handled by special counsel Robert Mueller, House and Senate committees continue to examine Russia’s meddling in the election as well. Donald Trump Jr. has agreed to a transcribed interview with the Senate judiciary committee this fall, which will be a major moment in trying to understand just what went on in that June 2016 meeting at Trump Tower.
8. North Korea
On Monday, in the wake of another alleged missile test by the rogue nation, US Ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley said that North Korea is “begging for war.” Trump himself spent some of the summer ramping up the rhetoric – promising “fire and fury” leveled at North Korea if it continued with its bellicose behavior. The question is, short of a military strike that could broaden into a broader conflagration on the Korean Peninsula, what can be done to stymie North Korea’s nuclear ambitions? And, at the moment, good answers to that question are few and far between.
9. Obamacare repeal
Republicans’ big push to get rid of the Affordable Care Act broke up on the rocks of political reality in July. And, despite Trump’s insistence that the Senate find another way to replace the ACA, it seems unlikely. Thanks to a ruling from the Senate parliamentarian last month, Republicans in the Senate now have only until September 30 to pass any sort of repeal/replace measure with a simple majority. After that date, Republicans would need a 60-vote, filibuster-proof majority which, um, they ain’t getting.
10. FAA reauthorization
Not the sexiest of the legislative items on the docket, the reauthorization of the Federal Aviation Administration is, nonetheless, problematic politically. Trump made a high-profile pitch earlier this summer to privatize the air traffic control system, but its legislative fate isn’t certain. The Senate’s version of the re-authorization bill leaves out Trump’s privatization plan. So, how hard will the administration fight to get it back in?