As the U.S. House and Senate return to legislative work on Capitol Hill this week, GOP leaders in the Congress must make some important decisions on what should top the agenda over the next few weeks, as lawmakers are scheduled to be at work for the rest of July, and then leave Washington, D.C. for a summer break that extends until Labor Day.
Worried about leaving town with so many major legislative items unresolved, some Republicans have asked leaders in the House and Senate to change the legislative schedule, and do away with all or part of the scheduled "August Recess," which is set to start on July 28.
"This does not appear to give us enough time to adequately address the issues that demand immediate attention," said a group of Senators led by Sen. David Perdue (R-GA), as they asked to stay at work in August.
Here is where the Congress stands as lawmakers come back to Washington this week:
1. The legislative calendar is tight. The House schedule has 13 legislative work days on the schedule between now and Labor Day - just the next three weeks in July. The August Recess is rarely fiddled with by Congressional leaders, though there have been examples in 1982 and 1994 where lawmakers stayed deep into August - sometimes they get their work done (1982 tax bill), and sometimes they don't (1994 failed Democratic effort on health care reform). Think about it this way - if you are going to stay for just three work weeks, what issues do you put on the House and Senate floor during that time? Right now, I still don't think GOP leaders get rid of their August break - they might stick around into the first week of August, but only if there is something to accomplish.
2. Health care remains at the top of the agenda. As the Senate returns to work on Monday, it's not clear that there is a path forward on a GOP bill to overhaul the Obama health law. Republicans tried to push to a vote on a plan before leaving town at the end of June, but that did not work, as a number of GOP Senators balked at that step. Over the last ten days, several different items have been floated, but nothing has seemed to interest conservative and moderate Republicans. One plan from Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX) would let insurers sell limited health insurance plans along with the ones mandated by the Obama health law. Another idea that had been rejected earlier in the year made a comeback, as the President pushed the idea of voting now to repeal the Obama health law, and then moving later to find a replacement. That also seems to be going nowhere fast in the Senate, as Republicans struggle to figure out how to follow through on their main campaign promise of the last seven years.
3. Can Congress produce a budget outline for 2018? Overshadowed by the maneuvering on health care has been the troubles confronting the GOP on a budget resolution for next year, a measure that is supposed to be approved by April 15. The House Budget Committee wanted to have a vote in late June on a budget blueprint for next year, but was unable to muster enough support. One stumbling block has been how much to reduce the yearly growth in spending on programs like Medicaid, Medicare and Social Security. "It’s time to pass a budget that addresses the true driver of our debt – mandatory spending," said House Budget Chair Rep. Diane Black (R-TN). The big problem here for the GOP is that if they cannot pass a budget resolution, then their plan to authorize a tax bill under the expedited rules of budget reconciliation will go nowhere. Black says her panel will report out a budget resolution this week. The lack of action on this by the GOP is a big deal.
4. How many spending bills will hit the House floor in July? Even without an agreement on how much the federal government should spend next year, the House Appropriations Committee has been pushing ahead with funding bills for Fiscal Year 2018 - but how many will actually be brought to the House floor before lawmakers leave on July 28? No appropriations bills were included on the House schedule for the work week of July 10. Congress is supposed to pass the 12 spending bills for the operations of Uncle Sam by September 30 - that date is the end of the fiscal year - but getting that work done on time hasn't happened in over 20 years (the GOP did it in 1996, the Democrats in 1994). Think of it this way - if you haven't approved the overall budget outline - and next year's spending levels - it's sort of hard to do the funding bills.
5. Push for action on the new FBI nominee. It's been two months now since President Trump fired James Comey as FBI Director. This week, the Senate Judiciary Committee will hold a confirmation hearing for Mr. Trump's FBI nominee, former Bush Justice Department official, Christopher Wray. If the Senate is only going to work for three weeks in July - and then leave until Labor Day - then GOP leaders will have to set aside some time to deal with that nomination. Wray's confirmation hearing is Wednesday, July 12. The Judiciary Committee could meet the next week to vote on the nomination - but any Senator on that panel has the right to force a one week delay. That would bring you to the final week of July. The GOP could get the Wray nomination out of committee, force a quick cloture vote on the Senate floor, and get a final Senate vote by July 28, when the Senate is scheduled to leave town. That's if everything goes without a hitch.
6. What we won't see in the month of July. As I have detailed repeatedly on this blog, while Republicans grapple with health care, there won't be any legislative action in the House or Senate until after Labor Day on two major items on the Trump agenda - a tax reform bill, and a bill to spur more spending on infrastructure, to build new roads and bridges. The big bill on the House floor this week will be a major defense policy measure, the Defense Authorization bill. Depending on what amendments are made in order, we might have votes on additional sanctions against North Korea and Russia. Also, the House is set to approve a plan that deals with water storage for states in the western U.S. The Senate will probably continue work on lower level nominations from President Trump, while waiting to see if there is a path forward on a GOP health care overhaul bill. In other words, not much has changed in the last month in Congress.