Congress’s Post-Vacation Blahs – The American Prospect

“Welcome back, congresswoman! Have a nice summer, senator? Go on any interesting codels? Well, it’s good to have you back in Washington. Now here are the 10,000 things that have to get done by the end of the month.”

That’s approximately what’s staring members of Congress in the face as they return to work after Labor Day. Funding for all federal programs expires on September 30, as does the authorization of several critical programs on which millions of Americans depend. Congress always can find a way to kick the can down the road on these deadlines, but that’s complicated by a hard-right House faction that wants to have a fight now, making the confrontation hard to avoid. The situation is further complicated by the sudden leadership questions for Senate Republicans. And there are only 12 legislative days on the calendar in the House and not much more than that in the Senate.

Here’s an overview of what needs to be dealt with in the frenzied next few weeks:

Government Funding: When we last left our heroes, they were resigned to the fact that all twelve annual spending bills, only one of which has passed the House and zero in the full Senate, were not going to get done by the deadline. Both sides are far apart on even topline spending numbers, with the House pushing them under the level agreed to in the debt limit deal, and the Senate nudging it over that level. So both House Speaker Kevin McCarthy (R-CA) and Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-NY) began talking about a stopgap “continuing resolution” to buy time.

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But debate immediately ensued over what form that continuing resolution would take. Just as the hard-right House Freedom Caucus demanded that Republicans bring domestic discretionary spending back to Fiscal Year 2022 levels in appropriations, so too do they want that for the CR. That’s a cut of about $119 billion on an annual basis, and it would nullify the whole point of a CR, which is to put off a final deal. The level of discretionary spending is what Congress has been arguing about on government funding anyway; the Freedom Caucus wants to have that fight immediately.

The Freedom Caucus has other demands too. They want any spending measure to include their punitive border security bill, to “address the unprecedented weaponization of the Justice Department and FBI,” and to end “woke” policies at the Department of Defense. Individual members have layered on even more demands. These are riders that the Senate and the president won’t agree to.

There is a path to put together a handful of House Republicans and I’d imagine most House Democrats on a clean CR that the Senate and president would quickly endorse. But McCarthy has to weigh what that would mean for his job security. The Speaker is so far warning that a government shutdown would delay an impeachment inquiry into the nefarious President Biden, which isn’t really true but which shows you how bound McCarthy is to his right flank.

Freedom Caucus members could attempt to take down any CR, by voting against it either in the Rules Committee (where they have three members) or in the rules package on the House floor. If they do, Democrats would have to save the CR on procedural votes that are usually party-line. This would be unusual, though not unprecedented.

On the Senate side, Schumer will bring up individual spending bills for a vote this month, all of which got bipartisan votes in the Appropriations Committee, in the hopes of highlighting the contrast with the shambolic House GOP. But that’s just a leverage play, not one that will inspire a deal. In one of his more lucid moments, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell summed things up: “It’s a pretty big mess.”

Ukraine/disaster supplemental: What’s making things more difficult is the White House’s stated request for supplemental spending to deal with fires in Maui, Hurricane Idalia in the Southeast, and war in Ukraine, among other things. The supplemental would also avert a large pay cut for federal wildland firefighters that will hit at the end of September if no action is taken.

House Republicans have been lukewarm on a supplemental, though Senate Republicans, especially ones whose constituents have been affected by natural disasters and who are up for re-election, like Florida’s Rick Scott, have described it as urgent. The $24 billion in Ukraine funding is a particular flashpoint; isolationist conservatives simply don’t want to write another check for the war. There’s $4 billion for border security in the supplemental, but that hasn’t moved any Republicans. The White House also wants another $1.4 billion for the Women, Infants and Children nutrition aid program, which is necessary to avoid delaying signups for the program.

The thought of combining the continuing resolution and the supplemental has been floated, but that would likely draw more opposition from House Republicans.

Other deadlines: The tricky politics of government funding and the supplemental are likely to crowd out a host of other matters with a September deadline.

For example, the current law that authorizes agriculture programs is set to expire, and leaders on both sides have conceded that a new farm bill will not be ready in time. There are open disputes about whether the bill should contain further restrictions on nutrition assistance, as well as cuts to funding for various farm programs.

PEPFAR, the enormously successful global anti-AIDS program, has gotten caught up in a Republican fight over abortions.

The Federal Aviation Administration authorization expires at the end of the month, with enduring fights around slots at Reagan National Airport and an airline-led measure to frustrate airfare transparency. The National Flood Insurance Program also expires in September; we’ve seen vicious flooding in areas like Vermont and Palm Springs, California, with little history of such catastrophes.

There are a number of health-related programs facing a September expiration, too, including reauthorization for community health center funding; an emergency response and pandemic preparedness bill; substance abuse and mental health aid from a 2018 opioid law; funding for the Teaching Health Centers Graduate Medical Education program, the Office of National Drug Control Policy and the National Health Service Corps; and continued Disproportionate Share Hospital payments, which are scheduled to be cut by $8 billion.

On top of that, federal subsidies for child care programs that date back to the pandemic run out this month, and some in the industry have warned that 70,000 programs could close. And PEPFAR, the enormously successful global anti-AIDS program, also sunsets in September, and it has gotten caught up in a Republican fight over abortions.

In a Dear Colleague letter sent on Friday, Schumer cited his desire to pass many of these priorities and more—like banking for cannabis-related businesses, online child safety and privacy, clawbacks for bank executives whose institutions crash, rail safety, artificial intelligence, and a longshot bid to lower insulin out-of-pocket costs outside of Medicare. In the background, the National Defense Authorization Act, usually the only must-pass bill of the year, could be a vehicle for any or all of these measures. But none of that is likely happening in September, given the other deadlines.

Extensions for many of these expiring priorities, from government funding on down, are fairly routine. But dealing with all of the measures at once, given the thin margins and endless infighting in Congress, would be a tall order under even the most energetic leadership. It’s harder in the midst of a succession crisis among Senate Republicans, after two episodes of Mitch McConnell freezing up in public have sowed doubt in his ability to lead. At the least, an important cog in figuring out this logjam is in a weakened state, and the three Senators behind him in leadership are all jockeying for future position in ways that could frustrate an outcome.

So I hope your vacation was good, esteemed legislators, because the next few weeks could be hell in the Capitol.

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