With only a dozen or so working days before the holiday break and the end of the year, Congress faces a daunting agenda that keeps growing longer and more challenging.
Based on published schedules, the Senate has 15 and the House 12 working days left in 2017. In that time, GOP congressional leaders want to pass tax-cut legislation and need to take action on a spending and debt ceiling bill to prevent a government shutdown.
Mixed in the politics of all that is the Dreamer’s Act and extension of funding for the Children’s Health Insurance Program (CHIP) that expired September 30, which has created a budgetary challenge for states trying to keep the popular insurance in place until Congress acts.
Then there are the series of subplots that fill headlines and color the policies and politics on Capitol Hill:
- The intensifying investigation into Russian election meddling;
- The Roy Moore scandal and Senate race in Alabama;
- Unfolding disclosures about sexual behavior by Members of Congress;
- An attempt by the Senate to repeal the Obamacare individual health care mandate as part of tax legislation; and
- The Federal Communication Commission’s decision to end net neutrality.
Lurking in the wings are stalled talks over revisions to the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), continuing tensions over North Korea’s nuclear capabilities and the hope for an infrastructure investment package.
Dealing with all that is more like a year’s agenda, not one for a short month.
Egged on by President Trump, Republicans want to deliver tax legislation to the White House before heading home for Christmas. While GOP leaders continue to sell the tax cut as a boon for the middle class, the push to pass it quickly is aimed at satisfying the expectations of Republican donors.
When the Senate returns to work this week, it will try to pass its version of tax legislation under special rules that prevent a Democratic filibuster. It can only lose two Republican votes. It also will vote on the bill under a cloud of criticism from economists across the ideological spectrum who say it will do little for the middle class and compromise the nation’s ability to deal with an economic downturn by sharply increasing the federal budget deficit.
If the Senate passes a tax measure, it then faces a House-Senate conference committee to iron out differences, which could highlight contentious and regionally divisive issues such as home mortgage and state and local tax deductibility.
Even though Republicans are trying to pass their tax legislation without any Democratic support, they need Democratic votes to pass a spending measure and increase the debt ceiling. The tight time frames before the holiday break amplify Democratic leverage. CHIP funding, which provides coverage for 9 million children, is one enticement the GOP is trying to use. The Dreamer’s Act could be another, but it could backfire and drive away some conservative GOP votes.
The troubled Moore Senate campaign to fill the seat formerly held by Jeff Sessions comes at an especially awkward political moment on December 12. If Moore, who faces accusations of sexual misconduct with minors, loses to Democrat Doug Jones, it will make GOP control of the Senate razor thin, which could be a factor if tax legislation gets pushed into next year.
Congress is also getting some pushback on the tax plan from corporations that have become more concerned about Trump objectives in NAFTA negotiations. A fifth round of talks among Canada, Mexico and the United States failed to produce agreement, which leaves open the possibility that Trump may unilaterally pull out of the trade deal. A business coalition led by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce has lobbied Capitol Hill in opposition to radical changes to NAFTA, warning they could lead to US job losses and ironically lead to more US manufacturing moved offshore.
The special prosecutor investigation into Russian election meddling and possible collusion by the Trump campaign has taken another ominous turn. Former National Security Advisor Michael Flynn has broken off contact with the Trump defense team, signaling a possible plea deal that involves cooperating with the special prosecutor on other targets. There have been signs Special Prosecutor Robert Mueller and his team have expanded their scope to include financial dealings by the Trump Organization with Russian oligarchs associated with money laundering.
The FCC decision to end net neutrality has stirred up a wide range of opponents who fear it will hand too much power to telecommunications companies. Supporters downplay that concern, saying it will lead to more investment in digital technology. But this isn’t just a garden-variety policy issue. Net neutrality supporters have taken to social media to voice their concerns, galvanizing many people who ordinarily shun politics. Those activated voters could make a difference in the looming 2018 mid-term election.