gun control

Murky Stew of Issues Face Congress as Election Season Approaches

Congress faces a daunting challenge to approve 12 appropriations bills before the March 23 deadline in the latest Continuing Resolution budget deal amid fiery debates over immigration and gun violence – and a fast-approaching primary election season in which both political parties will play to their respective bases.

Congress faces a daunting challenge to approve 12 appropriations bills before the March 23 deadline in the latest Continuing Resolution budget deal amid fiery debates over immigration and gun violence – and a fast-approaching primary election season in which both political parties will play to their respective bases.

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.

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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.


What Congressional Bipartisanship Wrought

Fallout from the government shutdown last October is having wide ranging impact on the mood and actions of federal legislators in Washington, DC. The term compromise, a dirty word since 2010, has reemerged in the lexicon of American politics as both parties try to avoid lurching from crisis to crisis.

Washington DC, after all, is a town of self-interest and even the most novice political observer could see a continuance of governance by shutdown and showdown could jeopardize the GOP's control of the House and prevent a takeover of the Senate, which now is a distinct possibility in November elections.  

Thus, the GOP had every incentive to work with Democrats to craft a bipartisan compromise on the largest spending bill approved in years. Democrats also wanted government working again, as President Obama and the Democratic Senate seek to put forward a record of accomplishment before the 2014 election.

The second term off-year election is historically bad for the party controlling the White House. Democrats fear they could lose their slim five-seat majority in the Senate and even lose seats in the House. The prospect of a united Republican Congress in 2015 has plenty of Democrats losing sleep.

Inaction Response to Navy Yard Shooting

The latest mass shooting, this time perilously close to the U.S. Capitol, has produced the same thud of silence in Congress.

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid told reporters he still lacks the votes to pass any significant gun control legislation. And if the Democratically controlled Senate is stymied, you can imagine the challenge in the GOP-controlled House.

Perhaps it is one of those telling yet cruel coincidences that two Colorado state senators who voted for legislation requiring universal background checks were just recalled in special elections. And this is in a state that has experienced two recent mass shootings. The alleged Navy Yard shooter had been arrested in Seattle for firing three pistol shots into the tires of a man who angered him. The Navy contractor in DC said he never would have hired the shooter if he had known. But the message in the Colorado election left a deeper impression. 

The shooting spree Monday at the Navy Yard, which is at the edge of Capitol Hill in Washington, DC, sent shudders down a lot of backs across America, including those of men and women in the military. Despite their security, military bases have become ready-made targets for shooters with nobody in particular to kill, but with the ability to walk into a gun shop and legally buy a shotgun.

There was huge irony in the White House Rose Garden as President Obama, trying to put the Syrian chemical weapons episode in the rearview mirror, held a press conference to refocus national attention — and the attention of House GOP leaders — on the still-flagging U.S. economy. While he spoke, Congress and other government offices were in lock-down while authorities searched for potential additional shooting suspects in the neighborhood.

Cherry Blossoms and Compromise Bloom

Suddenly Congress is abloom with cherry blossoms and compromises on gun control and immigration reform, a vote to break a Senate filibuster and a presidential budget proposal that angered both Republicans and Democrats.

Granted most of the activity was in the Senate, which has stirred from paralysis in response to the 2012 election and fast-moving demographic changes that could reshape the nation's electoral map. Even Congressman Paul Ryan — the chief budget warrior in the GOP-controlled House — signaled the possibility of a deal with President Barack Obama, despite Speaker John Boehner calling it a plan for deficit spending forever.

The political fault lines haven't evaporated, but leading Republicans are eager to seize the moment to repair tattered relations with minority voters, who vote heavily Democratic, and suburban voters, who are emerging as the key swing votes in many states. Both constituencies balk at some of the more extreme GOP positions.

GOP ballot box failures with African-American and Latino voters were highlighted in Obama's victory last fall. But more important are signs that more bedrock red states such as Texas and Arizona are seeing a marked shift toward the political middle or beyond. That has led to a new political pliancy by the likes of Senators John McCain of Arizona and Lindsey Graham of South Carolina on immigration.