WASHINGTON – In the coming weeks, Congress is set to run out of road after a year of kicking the can.
Faced with several issues to address in September, federal legislators instead passed short-term measures through December. As a result, Texas members will be forced to finally deal with year’s worth of unfinished legislation.
It’s a staggering docket ahead, ranging from a tax overhaul to children’s health insurance.
And it’s all taking place with disruptive undercurrents: Members are retiring en masse, and the two chambers are on edge as sexual misconduct allegations fly in public and in private.
The Senate returned from Thanksgiving break on Monday, and House members return Tuesday evening. The House is only scheduled to be in session for 12 days in December – which makes for a chaotic stretch. Here are some of the most pressing issues the chambers will be facing:
Hurricane Harvey funding
Patience within the Texas delegation is running out as the Trump administration continues to offer funding measures that fall far short of Texas’ requests to rebuild after Hurricane Harvey.
Members of Congress from states ravaged by natural disasters are pushing for an additional aid package to help with emergency relief.
Texas Gov. Greg Abbott visited with members in Washington at the end of September to discuss a report he requested that indicates an additional $61 billion is needed for rebuilding Texas alone. The White House returned with a proposal for $44 billion that likely would be divided between Texas, Florida, California, Puerto Rico, and the Virgin Islands.
Texans to watch: U.S. Sen. John Cornyn, as a member of Senate GOP leadership, is a constant proponent of funding relief measures for the state. U.S. House Appropriations Committee members – Republicans John Carter, John Culberson, and Kay Granger and Democrat Henry Cuellar are expected to fight mightily for aid and could solicit the help of the Florida delegation to form a united bloc.
Although some Texas Republicans might be concerned with additional spending measures, watch for the delegation to operate as a bipartisan unit on this front.
Rewriting the tax code is a last-ditch effort of congressional Republicans to pass major legislation before the end of the first year of Donald Trump’s presidency. The U.S. House of Representatives passed their version of the bill before Thanksgiving, and the Senate is expected to vote on their bill later this week.
Senate Republicans can’t pass their bill without support of all but two of their members – and fiscal hawks are raising concerns about how the Senate bill will affect the national deficit, small businesses, and health care markets.
The biggest question is whether the two chambers can come together in a conference committee.
Texans to watch: U.S. House Ways and Means Committee chairman Kevin Brady (R-The Woodlands) served as the author of the House bill. Brady has been hopeful about getting legislation to the president’s desk by the end of the year. And Cornyn, as Senate majority whip, will play an instrumental role in negotiating and counting his party’s vote this week.
Averting a Government Shutdown
The federal government is set to run out of money Dec. 8. A short-term extension is expected to delay the deadline to later in the month, giving lawmakers a couple of weeks to negotiate spending levels.
But that isn’t much time for members of both chambers’ appropriations committees to craft spending legislation, which sets the budgets for government agencies through next September.
Texans to watch: All members. As Congress failed over and over to pass small pieces of legislation, the solution has frequently been, “We’ll figure this out in the end-of-year-spending bill” – but spending bills are usually difficult to move through the House chamber. Far-right House members frequently vote against the bills, meaning Speaker Paul Ryan could be forced to cut a deal with House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi. What makes this round even dicier is whether members are willing to vote against the spending bill if demands on issues such as immigration are not met.
Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA)
Complicating matters is a legislative fix for the Obama administration’s protection for individuals who immigrated into the United States illegally as young people.
Since the government spending bill is must-pass legislation, Democratic leadership has considered the tying the immigration measure to it, which would effectively make DACA permanent.
Texans to watch: U.S. Rep. Beto O’Rourke (D-El Paso) has hosted DACA recipients at the U.S. Capitol and has advocated for making the program permanent. However, at an event last month he said he would not withhold a vote for government funding if the provision was not attached because “I believe there are other ways for us to get a Dream Act passed.” That same question will face other Democratic members of the delegation.
Among the programs Congress needs to reauthorize by early December is the National Flood Insurance Program, which benefits individuals living in areas prone to recurrent flooding that private companies will not cover. It has been historically financially unstable, and members have been calling for major reforms.
In September, Trump and Democratic leadership negotiated a short-term extension that pushed the deadline to Dec. 8. The House passed a bill to overhaul the program in November, but the Senate has yet to take action. The betting money is that Congress will pass another short-term measure to extend the program.
Texans to watch: The Houston delegation and members of the U.S. House Financial Services Committee. Most notably, Chairman Jeb Hensarling (R-Dallas) is no fan of the program.
Congress also pushed raising the debt ceiling – the amount the government can borrow – to December. Failure to raise this limit could result in widespread economic crisis, according to economists, but staunch conservatives have raised concern about excessive deficit spending.
After Congress failed to reauthorize funding for the children’s health insurance program in September, states have been individually responsible for keeping the program going.
House Republicans passed a bill without Democratic support earlier this month, and it was unclear whether that measure could be reconciled with the Senate’s, but The Hill reported on Monday that House negotiators are closer to striking a deal.
The situation is not yet a crisis, but it could escalate as money runs out in states. The program provides insurance to approximately 9 million young people nationally and 400,000 in Texas.
Texas delegation etiquette dictates that members ought to announce plan to retire prior to the opening of candidate filing. Members took that guidance seriously, with a flood of retirement announcements in early November.
Even so, rumors fly among delegation sources that more members could drop ahead of the Dec. 11 filing deadline.
U.S. Rep. Al Green (D-Houston) promised in November to impeach Trump before Christmas. A handful of House Democrats agree with him, but most House Democrats – including the chamber’s party leadership – want to see special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation continue before taking such sweeping action, and there is little appetite to make impeachment a central issue for the midterms.
Texans to watch: Green.