7 Big Questions About What Congress Will Do in September

Photo: Mandel Ngan/AFP/Getty Images

Until historic rains began to fall in southeast Texas, the political forecast for September in Washington was “stormy, with a good chance of a manmade disaster.” There were must-pass debt limit and appropriations bills that are obvious targets for hostage-takers (including the president of the United States); leftover health-care legislation; some key reauthorizations; no time to waste; no bipartisan agreements to speak of; and deep divisions among the ruling Republicans.

Now a real natural disaster (with some help from humans) has symbolically hit Washington just as surely as it actually hit Houston. And the climate has changed in ways that may help Congress and the White House get through September without the kind of legislative crises we previously expected. But because so much remains up in the air as Congress prepares to reconvene on September 5, it’s best to discuss the many possibilities via a series of questions.

1) When will Congress begin making money available for Harvey relief and recovery? 
The White House indicated it would be quickly sending a $5.9 billion emergency appropriations request, with most of that money going to FEMA, whose disaster fund is quickly being drawn down. This money is generally being described as a “down payment” on much larger future requests. The sense of urgency about it suggests the first batch of money will get through Congress as a stand-alone bill; any linkage of Harvey relief to other legislation will probably involve a second batch, put together later in September.

2) What’s the relationship of Harvey money to general government funding, which runs out at the end of September — creating potential for another shutdown?
There’s none in principle — but it is now generally assumed a short-term “continuing resolution” funding the federal government at current levels until December or possibly January will be lubricated by some serious Harvey-related money. That’s true both legislatively (the general and specific appropriations will be put into a single bill requiring a majority in the House and 60 votes in the Senate) and symbolically (it’s just bad form to shut down the federal government, as various hostage-takers have threatened to do, while the country is still dealing with a disaster of Harvey’s vast dimensions).

Already, the president has informally withdrawn his threat of vetoing the CR if it fails to include border-wall money (as have the House Freedom Caucus members who were backing up his threat). It looks like Pentagon enthusiasts are backing off their plans for a big fight over removing defense-spending caps in the CR as well. Both these battles, and potentially others, won’t be eliminated entirely, but just delayed until the CR expires. In fact, because any annual cuts or increases in spending must be accomplished in only part of the year, the fights could become more savage at that later date. But for now, thanks to Harvey, a government shutdown on September 30 looks very unlikely.

3) Meanwhile, financial markets are nervous that the federal government will hit its debt limit soon (potentially creating cataclysmic havoc), and some conservatives seem ready to play chicken. Will Harvey relief money be leveraged to help raise the debt limit too? 
Probably, though that is a bit less clear. As recently as a week ago, the House Freedom Caucus was rattling sabers against the “clean” debt limit increase that the Trump administration and congressional Republicans wanted. As usual, they were demanding spending cuts or new budget rules that would make future spending harder to enact. And congressional Democrats were not entirely onboard a “clean” bill, which is significant because their votes would be needed to reach the Senate’s 60-vote threshold, or even to get a bill out of the House if the HFC opposed it. Now opposition to getting this essential piece of work done seems to be melting. At the moment, HFC leaders seem more concerned about keeping the debt-limit bill separate from Harvey funding — on grounds that it would be especially unseemly to increase the debt limit while also massively increasing spending — than with making spending-cut demands of their own. So ironically, we could see these fiscal conservatives become converted to the cause of a “clean” debt-limit bill after all. Nothing would better illustrate the changed September climate.

4) What else has to happen in September?
There are some important federal programs whose legal authority or funding runs out at the end of the fiscal year. The biggest is the Children’s Health Insurance Program, the Clinton-era state-administered supplement to Medicaid that provides health insurance to about 9 million children. The program has long had solid bipartisan support (though the Trump administration’s dead-on-arrival budget proposal took a large chunk out of it). For that reason, its reauthorization has become a target for potential hostage-takers. Republicans have talked about attaching a repeal of the medical device tax enacted by the Affordable Care Act to a CHIP reauthorization, to salvage something from its failed Obamacare repeal-and-replace initiative. And it’s probably crossed the minds of more than a few Democrats that CHIP could be a nice vehicle for Obamacare stabilization measures, particularly those with some GOP support.

But so far CHIP has not been taken hostage, and the fact that the states have unused CHIP money available for at least a few months has lessened the urgency of this particular bill.

A potentially trickier beast is the expiration of the federal flood-insurance program. As I explained recently, this program had been the object of a potentially powerful coalition of fiscal conservatives and environmentalists who for different reasons want to limit federal subsidies to people who want to build homes on flood plains and athwart wetlands. It was led, as it happens, by Texas Republican representative Jeb Hensarling. Even if he stands fast on major reforms in the program, he’s unlikely to have much immediate support from his fellow Texans, or lawmakers from other flood-prone locales. Thanks to this terrible timing, a short-term extension of the existing flood-insurance program is the best best.

5) What about the GOP’s ostensible top priority: tax reform and budget cuts?
You’ll hear a lot about tax reform — or just plain tax cuts — from Republicans in September, but most of the talk will represent trial balloons, propaganda, or distractions from subjects people don’t want to talk about. Real action on taxes is extremely unlikely to happen in Congress before October. And even then, a vast number of questions need to be answered by Republicans at both ends of Pennsylvania Avenue about which taxes to cut, whether or not tax cuts will be offset by loophole-closings and other revenue measures, and whether or not revenue losses will be offset by spending cuts. All that is entirely up in the air at the moment, and it’s not even clear who will make these difficult decisions and when they will occur. Once they are resolved, the whole scheme will almost certainly have to be encapsulated in a Fiscal Year 2018 budget resolution that makes it possible for the ultimate tax-and-budget legislation to be passed by a simple majority vote in the Senate (you know, the way health-care legislation was supposed to be enacted).

This will all take a lot of time, or could take until the end of time. But barring a miracle it’s not coming together in September.

6) Is it possible Trumpcare will make a comeback?
Anything’s possible, of course, and technically, the Senate could bring back some version of the Better Care Reconciliation Act it so conspicuously failed to pass in July. There’s no particular reason to think any votes have changed, however. And the proposal some Republicans thought might represent fresh hope for a health-care bill, the Graham-Cassidy block grant legislation, has lost momentum as everyone realized the kind of damage it would do to both the individual insurance markets and Medicaid.

The possibility of some late, late comeback for Trumpcare took a big hit this week when the Senate parliamentarian ruled the FY 2017 budget resolution that set up a filibuster-free consideration of Obamacare repeal-and-replace legislation in the first place would expire along with FY 2017, on September 30. There had been a school of thought that the resolution would remain in effect until a FY 2018 budget resolution had been enacted, which could be significantly later in the year, or even next year. No dice, said the parliamentarian. The odds of Trumpcare finding time on the Senate agenda in September, even if government shutdowns and debt defaults are off the table, are small.

But there might be more hope for specific elements of Trumpcare. For instance, the medical-device-tax repeal, has already been mentioned as a potential “rider” on a CHIP reauthorization bill. And then there’s the provision to ban use of any federal funds by Planned Parenthood, which was included in every single version of Trumpcare, including the “skinny repeal” bill that specified very few other policies. The powerful pro-life lobby has so far refrained from demanding that its attack on Planned Parenthood become a central complication for must-pass debt limit or appropriations bills; they’ve preferred to hide their defunding bill in filibuster-proof budget legislation. But their patience may be running out. Fortunately for congressional Republicans who probably dread defunding demands as much as Planned Parenthood itself, some of the pressure for vengeance against the women’s health-care giant is being released by state funding actions. These include South Carolina’s recent ban on use of federal family-planning money for Planned Parenthoood, and Arkansas’s ban on Medicaid reimbursements for the organization (which was upheld by a circuit court of appeals).

7) How sure can we be about any of these answers?
About as sure as we are of what President Trump will do next.

7 Big Questions About What Congress Will Do in September