As Congress returns from its two-week Easter recess, it faces either a landslide of big issues, or a complete letdown. That is because the three key developments expected to dominate Washington this week could be defused or deferred until significantly later.
The government might shut down — or, more likely, a crisis will be averted or delayed. The omnibus appropriations measure that has been funding federal government operations since last December expires at midnight on Friday. If nothing is done by then, there will be a partial government shutdown, like the one that occurred in 2013 (lasting 16 days).
As this deadline approaches, there have been constant assurances from the White House and from congressional leaders in both parties that a shutdown won’t happen. That is mostly based on the assumption that “poison pill” provisions unacceptable to either party will be removed and/or dealt with through other legislative vehicles.
The one thing that is definitely clear is that after watching Republicans struggle over a health-care bill that it could theoretically enact without a single Democratic vote in either house, the donkey party has enormous leverage over the appropriations bill necessary to avoid a government shutdown, which it can filibuster in the Senate. Democratic votes, moreover, could be necessary in the House as well, since a goodly number of House Freedom Caucus members will vote against any and all spending measures that don’t include crazy-deep domestic cuts.
To avert a shutdown crisis and extend appropriations until the end of the fiscal year (October 1), a bipartisan deal is essential, and that means the White House must back off on prior demands for border-wall funding, a grant cutoff for “sanctuary cities,” or a big defense-spending increase (which will probably be handled in a separate “urgent supplemental” appropriations bill). Republicans will also need to continue to whisper sweet nothings to anti-abortion activists who have in the past demanded votes against any appropriations that include money for Planned Parenthood (legislation to “defund” Planned Parenthood was in the stalled Trumpcare bill). And either the White House or congressional Republicans will have to find a way to ensure the continuation of the Obamacare insurer subsidies that Trump has been threatening to interrupt.
The political backdrop for all these negotiations is that it is generally assumed Republicans, as the owners of trifecta control over the federal government, will be largely blamed for any lapse in its functions. That, too, gives Democrats superior leverage despite their lack of formal power.
The obvious “third way” for Congress this week is to put off the crisis with short-term (one- or two-week) extensions of current appropriations, as they have often done in similar circumstances in the past. The problem with that stopgap solution, however, is the reported White House heartburn over the failure to show more accomplishments before the 100-day milestone of the Trump presidency, which arrives on April 29. Trump might want to go for broke for an appropriations “victory” this week even if it increases the possibility of a government shutdown.
A new version of Trumpcare could come to the House floor for a vote — or it might fizzle again. To an almost comical extent, Republicans keep trumpeting the imminent revival of stalled legislation to repeal and partially replace Obamacare. There is no particular reason to believe that the substantive intra-Republican disputes that caused the failure of the American Health Care Act last month have been successfully addressed. But in theory, a combination of White House pressure, some cosmetic changes, and above all the desire to dump this problem on the Senate and move on to the tastier proposition of tax cuts could drag Zombie Trumpcare over the line in the House.
Just a few days ago, there were reports from every direction that the House would vote on health-care legislation this week. But Paul Ryan told Republican House members on Saturday that no vote had been scheduled, and no vote would be scheduled until the votes were secured to ensure passage of a revised bill. So it looks already like health-care legislation is slipping back toward failure. Don’t be surprised if it reemerges as bipartisan legislation very much unlike what the House is considering right now.
In the unlikely event a House vote does occur this week or very soon thereafter, and is successful, it should not be taken as a sign that Senate passage is likely any time soon. Resistance to the American Health Care Act or anything that closely resembles it will be significantly stronger in the Senate, where Republicans can only lose two votes, and where the Senate parliamentarian could well throw sand in the wheels by ruling key House provisions non-germane to the budget and hence subject to a Democratic filibuster.
The White House could release a tax plan — or just punt again on the details. The last large cookie on the plate for the post-recess week in Washington is the administration’s announcement of its next major legislative initiative, a tax-cut package, per The Hill:
Trump said the plan would be unveiled “Wednesday or shortly thereafter” and would involve tax cuts that would be “bigger I believe than any tax cut ever.”
The president added later Friday at the Treasury Department that the administration will “be having a big announcement Wednesday having to do with tax reform.”
But Trump budget director Mick Mulvaney immediately indicated the announcement might leave a lot of details — like maybe all of them — to the not-so-immediate future, as Mark Niquette reports:
Asked about his previous comments that the full plan with bill language probably won’t be released until June, Mulvaney said “that’s still probably fair. ” The administration has started working with House and Senate committees “as we try and build some momentum for this tax plan,” he said.
Mulvaney said the administration hasn’t decided whether its plan will be revenue neutral, which would be needed to meet the criteria set by lawmakers to make tax changes permanent, or will add to the national debt.
That’s kind of a big deal. This decision spells the difference between “tax reform” and just another big fat high-end GOP “tax cut.” And it also has a large impact on the procedures used to enact tax legislation, since the budget-reconciliation process everyone has assumed would be the vehicle for a tax cut requires budget-neutrality within ten years (which is why tax changes might not be “permanent”).
So it appears the Wednesday (or whenever it is) announcement could make the GOP’s tax legislation planning murkier than ever.
All in all, it looks to be one of those increasingly common weeks of the Trump era, where you wake up in the morning wondering if you’ve missed something momentous that happened overnight — or if you will wake up a week from now amazed at how little is really happening in Washington aside from misleading noise.