Most Members of Congress are back in their states and districts for the President’s Day Recess, but here in DC leaders and staff are trying to make sense of the previous month’s legislative roller coaster and decide how to chart a path forward.
There are plenty of obstacles in the way – immigration, gun control and primary elections. The challenges Congress faces are a lot like the temptations of distracted driving. They will be trying to steer a final budget agreement to safe harbor, while fending off texts, tweets, marches and grandstanding that are sure to grab a lot of attention.
Over the last two weeks, Congress was able to avoid another government shutdown by passing a fifth short-term extension to March 23, increasing spending caps for FY18 and FY19 and debating, but failing to pass a comprehensive immigration bill out of the Senate. However, nothing has been fully resolved.
Each of these three thorny items will need to be addressed or finalized over the coming weeks. It is likely these politically charged issues will start to intersect and cause further instability. Add to the mix the school shooting in Parkland, Florida along with related scheduled gun control marches in DC and the political landscape on Capitol Hill becomes even less predictable.
And that doesn’t factor in the effect of President Trump’s tweets.
Appropriators have been tasked with allocating an additional $63 billion to the 12 appropriations subcommittees that will be charged with writing a final FY18 budget by March 23. Bolstered spending should grease the skids for quick passage in Congress.
However, appropriations often get bogged down with controversial policy riders that can torpedo broad-based bipartisan deals. Gun control and immigration are two of the most highly charged political issues. It will be hard for both sides to restrain themselves and put a firewall between a final spending agreement and the enormous pressure to score points with their respective bases.
The final ingredient in the murky congressional stew is the 2018 primary election schedule that begins in less than a month and continues through mid-September. The earliest state primary will be held in Texas on March 6, just two weeks from now. Election activity will peak in June with 17 primaries. Oregon’s primary will be May 15.
Republicans are already feeling the pressure with GOP retirements nearly tripling those of Democrats (25 to 9). Historically, mid-term elections are bad for the party in charge of the White House and Republicans and Democrats will be looking for ways to mobilize their base. Immigration and guns are certainly two huge mobilizing forces for both sides.
At the end of the day, we don’t feel like these issues will torpedo the budget deal. However, this will be the biggest test for leaders on both sides of the aisle to steer the spending bill to safe harbor, while at the same time satisfying their respective constituents.
Joel Rubin is a partner and leader of CFM’s federal affairs team based in Washington, DC. He has worked on Capitol Hill and now represents Pacific Northwest interests in Congress and with federal agencies.