The congressional to-do list: Federal funding, Trump probes and US-Mexico-Canada trade
By ERIK WASSON AND BILLY HOUSE | Bloomberg | Published: September 9, 2019
Congress returned to work Monday with a heavy agenda and slim prospects of getting much done beyond the bare minimum of keeping the government funded and operating after the fiscal year ends Sept. 30.
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi faces a crucial decision on whether to give the go-ahead for formal impeachment proceedings against President Donald Trump. Impeachment is popular with the Democrats' liberal base but unpopular with the public at large, and it's likely doomed because of the ability of the Republican-controlled Senate to protect the president.
Senate Republicans also are all but certain to stymie the priorities of House Democrats. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell intends to spend most the chamber's time this fall confirming Trump nominees.
The divided-government gridlock that has pervaded all year is hardening as lawmakers turn their focus to their re-election prospects in 2020, but there are three areas where there is potential for action: guns, trade and drug prices.
Here's a look at the major issues facing lawmakers:
• Government funding: Congress appears on course to avoid another shutdown drama, at least for now. Agreement on stopgap spending bill putting the government on autopilot into late November or early December is all but assured, with a House vote on a short-term spending bill during the week of Sept. 16.
Although the two-year budget and debt ceiling deal between Congress and the White House set a $1.3 trillion limit for discretionary spending in fiscal year 2020, which starts Oct. 1, lawmakers haven't negotiated the 12 individual annual spending bills for government operations. Three weeks of legislative session isn't enough time to get it done.
The White House has asked for language in stopgap to allow it to build more border fencing but hasn't backed it up with any veto threats. Democrats, deeply unhappy with the White House for raiding $3.6 billion in military construction funds for Trump's wall, are likely to save that battle until later in the year.
The House has passed almost all of its versions of the bills, but the Senate has yet to unveil a single one. That's supposed to begin this week when the Senate Appropriations Committee releases its first four annual spending bills, including one for the Pentagon.
Republicans may attempt to attach the annual defense appropriations bill to the stopgap spending legislation. Democrats will resist that without wrapping up the domestic spending bills that are their priority. Also in the way of finishing the related defense policy legislation are differences between the House and Senate over authorizations for military actions and sales in the Middle East, as well as Democrats' attempts to prevent using military funds for the border wall.
• Impeachment and investigations: Pelosi hasn't given any deadline on deciding whether to pursue articles of impeachment. Although more than half of the 235 Democrats in the House are calling for Trump to be impeached or at least support an inquiry, she has her eye on the dozens of members who represent Republican-leaning districts and will face voters again in 2020.
"The public isn't there on impeachment," said Pelosi, in a conference call with fellow Democrats late last month.
Judiciary Committee Chairman Jerrold Nadler of New York has added a wrinkle. He has argued that his panel's investigations and evidence-gathering against Trump's "malfeasance" — through subpoenas and in the courts — already amounts to "formal impeachment proceedings." He's also said that his panel will, "hopefully by the end of the year, vote articles of impeachment to the House floor. Or we won't."
The Judiciary Committee is set to vote this week on setting up special procedures for future hearings, including extending time for the panel's staff to question witnesses, potentially allowing for more focused inquiries at public hearings, according to a congressional aide familiar with the plan. The changes also would include taking evidence in closed session to deal with sensitive information, such as grand jury material.
For now, Pelosi continues to insist that a case still needs to be built for impeachment through more committee investigation, and added witness testimony and material being sought in pending court action against the administration.
Beyond impeachment, there are numerous other inquiries across several House committees digging into topics, including the Trump campaign's handling of Russian interference in 2016, the president's tax returns, his payments reimbursing Michael Cohen for hush money given to two women before the 2016 election and whether members of his administration improperly used private messaging and email to conduct government business.
The committees conducting investigations include Financial Services, Ways and Means, Intelligence and Oversight and Reform.
• U.S.-Mexico-Canada trade: Talks aimed at resolving demands by House Democrats for changes to the replacement for the North American Free Trade Agreement slowed during the August recess making a vote on the deal anytime soon unlikely.
Trump's U.S. trade representative, Robert Lighthizer, will resume his meetings with House Democrats and may bring a formal counteroffer to their demands on labor, environment, drug price and enforcement provisions. Pelosi has indicated she's willing to reach agreement and the administration has applauded her cooperation.
"We are eager to continue making progress on the new NAFTA, and we await a full, formal response to our proposals from the Trump Administration," top House negotiator, Ways and Means Committee Chairman Richard Neal of Massachusetts said last week.
But one member of the negotiating team, Rosa DeLauro of Connecticut said the vote could seep into next year. The Senate is waiting on the House to reach an agreement with Lighthizer and parallel attempts by Republican Senators Rob Portman of Ohio and Pat Toomey of Pennsylvania to limit Trump's ability to impose tariffs on China are bottled up in the Finance Committee.
• Gun control: Three mass shootings in August have pushed regulation of firearms back into the public and political debate. But it's not clear the outcome will be much different than the deadlocks that resulted from previous tragedies.
The Judiciary Committee is set work this week on legislation, including outlawing high capacity ammunition magazines. House Democrats voted in February to expand criminal background checks to would-be gun buyers on the internet and at gun shows. Senate Democratic leader Chuck Schumer said he'll spending the coming weeks pressuring McConnell to let them come up for a vote. A separate bipartisan background check initiative has been proposed in the Senate and it may have better chances than it when last proposed in 2013.
Sens. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, a Republican, and Richard Blumenthal of Connecticut, a Democrat, are pushing legislation that would create a grant program to encourage more states to adopt so-called red flag laws that would take guns from potentially dangerous people. Another proposal with some bipartisan support would require federal authorities to alert state law enforcement if someone is caught lying about a criminal record to obtain a firearm.
A smaller effort aimed at ensuring states receive FBI background check information may be gaining momentum.
Trump remains the wild card. Lawmakers from both parties say they've talked with the president or his aides about various plans, but Trump's given no clear signal whether he'll buck the National Rifle Association and support stricter background checks. He's lately focused on mental health as a factor in gun violence.
McConnell, who's opposed past attempts to tighten gun laws, said he won't hold a vote on any legislation that doesn't have Trump's support.
• Drug pricing: The House and Senate could agree on a drug pricing bill this fall but it looks like an uphill slog. The Senate Finance Committee in July passed a measure that would force some pharmaceutical companies to pay Medicare when they increase the cost of their products above inflation. Finance Committee Chairman Chuck Grassley of Iowa is talks with Health Committee Chairman Lamar Alexander of Tennessee about combining this bill with a measure which passed the Health committee aimed easing access to generic drugs and reining in pharmaceutical benefit managers.
The chairmen have no guarantee that their combined bill will get a Senate floor vote. "This bill is not anywhere near ready for action on the floor," Senator John Cornyn of Texas, a member of Senate leadership, said when the bill passed the Finance Committee over his objections.
A bipartisan effort to target surprise medical bills has bogged down amid fierce industry lobbying.
Pelosi is planning by early October to unveil a House Democratic approach to drug prices that is said to aim at drugs that have been on the market without competition and to create out-of-pocket caps for seniors within Medicare Part D. Progressive Democrats have raised objections to the bill saying it does not go far enough to punish drugmakers who do not lower prices for a wider range of drugs.
The further the House bill moves toward the progressives' demand, the more difficult reconciling it with the Senate Finance version could become.
• Big tech: Facebook, Google and Amazon.com are facing another season of scrutiny on Capitol Hill.
The House Financial Services Committee will focus on oversight of Facebook's proposed cryptocurrency, along with housing finance reform, stock buybacks and innovations in loan instruments, according to Chairwoman Maxine Waters, a California Democrat.
The tech giants are separately contending with a broad antitrust investigation led by Rep. David Cicilline, a Rhode Island Democrat.
The scrutiny is bipartisan. In addition to concerns about their impact on competition, Trump and other Republicans accuse the tech platforms of bias against conservatives.
The scrutiny by lawmakers threatens to go beyond criticism to legislation that would restrict their businesses. Though that may be a long way off, the pressure on the companies will continue.
• Other business: Deadlines have a way of provoking Congress into action, so the coming months could see overhauls of the expiring National Flood Insurance Program and the Export-Import Bank enacted, along with an overhaul of government guarantees for failing multi-employer pensions and several expiring tax breaks. Yet simple extensions of the status quo on those items may be all that Congress can muster.
The turmoil in Hong Kong means Congress will debate a bipartisan effort to sanction officials suppressing democratic freedoms there, and Democrats plan to force a vote on a measure blocking Trump administration regulations on Obamacare.
With the prospects for legislation in this Congress reduced, committee action in the House and Senate are best seen as setting up possible deals after 2020.
The Ways and Means Committee is likely to vote on a Social Security reform bill authored by Connecticut Representative John Larson that would increase payroll taxes and expand benefits. That would lay down a marker for future talks on the program, which is running out of money in the next decade and a half.
Waters' committee plans a hearing this week on legislation to govern the student loan industry, and wants to take aim at the private placement exemption from Securities and Exchange Commission rules for raising capital later this month.
The House is planning to act on legislation to reauthorize funding for Community Health Centers, which expires at the end of September, while Energy and Commerce Chairman Frank Pallone of New Jersey plans to advance a new bill regulating cosmetics and personal care products and one reauthorizing the Pipeline Safety Program which also expires this month.
His committee is working on a bill to that would impose stricter regulations on the industrial chemicals known as PFAS and completely ban asbestos, while negotiating with the Senate to advance the Stopping Bad Robocalls Act which already passed the House.