A lot has happened in the two weeks since Congress left town.
Roughly half a million people descended on Washington, DC, to call for sweeping gun control legislation in the March for Our Lives rally; President Donald Trump reignited his calls for hardline immigration reforms; the White House’s top infrastructure adviser quit; and the Environmental Protection Agency’s director Scott Pruitt landed in hot water for excessive spending and mismanagement.
But as lawmakers return to the Capitol Building after the spring recess, don’t expect them to take up many — if any — of these pressing concerns. As the midterm election season ramps up, Congress is expected to avoid major controversial issues and stick to confirmation hearings and political messaging bills.
As USA Today’s Eliza Collins pointed out, “the performance of Congress over the past five midterm election lead-ups — from the Easter break to Election Day in 2014, 2010, 2006, 2002 and 1998 — backs up the common belief that nothing much is accomplished during that dead-zone period.” There have been few exceptions, like when Democrats held wide majorities, and in the wake of major national events like the 9/11 terrorist attacks.
Congress’s massive spending bill — a $1.3 trillion funding package that will keep the government open through September 30 — was widely regarded as their last major legislative fight of the year. But on health care, immigration, guns, and infrastructure, there are still a lot of policies that were supposed to see action and haven’t yet.
There’s a lot of unfinished business.
DACA and other immigration issues will likely get the silent treatment
Last September, Trump’s administration pledged to sunset the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, throwing the sympathetic, yet still contentious, issue of young undocumented immigrants on Congress’s plate.
The fate of the program is now in limbo in the courts, and Congress still doesn’t seem poised to act. After months of failed negotiations, senators have already voted down four immigration proposals. The bill that had Trump’s blessing, which would have given 1.8 million undocumented immigrants a path to citizenship but substantially gutted the legal immigration system, received the fewest votes. The only comprehensive bipartisan proposal on the table not only failed to win enough votes but was panned by Trump’s administration.
In the House, Speaker Paul Ryan has been slowly whipping votes for a conservative immigration proposal that wouldn’t offer a path to citizenship at all. So far the proposal has failed to shore up enough support even among House Republicans. In other words, lawmakers have essentially thrown up their hands on the issue.
But Trump isn’t over it. He spent much of the time lawmakers were on recess angrily tweeting for the end of DACA and calling for hardline immigration reforms. It’s not clear whether Trump will make enough noise for Congress to actually act. But at this point it’s clear Republicans would rather avoid the issue altogether.
Activists are calling for more gun control. Republicans have moved on.
The day after Congress left town, at least 1.2 million people participated in March for Our Lives events across the United States. Prompted by students from Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, where a mass shooting killed 17 in early February, the rallies were a culmination of weeks of activism and calls to action around gun control and school safety.
Gun control has been something of a white whale for Democratic politicians for years. After every mass shooting, Congress enters into a cycle of talking but not acting. At the beginning of this year, Republicans actually rolled back an Obama-era rule that made it harder for people with mental illness to buy a gun.
But the shooting in Parkland reignited the gun control debate more vigorously, and some Democratic-led proposals initially gained the backing from President Donald Trump.
Before lawmakers left town, they did pass some gun-related pieces of legislation: the Fix NICS Act, which did not create new background check rules but reinforced existing ones, and the STOP School Violence Act, which established $50 million in grants for school safety, including infrastructure and improving reporting systems. They also clarified that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention can conduct research on gun violence, something that has long been stifled by the Dickey Amendment, which states federal dollars can’t “promote gun control.”
Activists are calling for a lot more, and much of the debate around gun control remains unresolved, ranging from the Democratic push for an assault weapons ban to the bipartisan Toomey-Manchin amendment that would expand background checks to online sales and gun shows. Already, it seems, leaders don’t have much appetite to get into those more contentious policy fights.
The Obamacare stabilization package that can’t
This congressional term began with health care, as Republicans, in power of the House, Senate and White House, attempted to repeal and replace the Affordable Care Act.
That effort failed. Instead, Republicans managed to repeal the individual mandate, a tax on those who opt out of buying health insurance, and some began to propose ways to stabilize the Obamacare markets.
The latest iteration of the Obamacare stabilization package, which Sen. Susan Collins (R-ME) co-sponsored with Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-TN), would have funded cost-sharing reduction subsidies, which help insurance companies keep down premium costs, for three years and pumped billions of dollars into reinsurance funding, which essentially backstops insurance companies’ expenses with high-cost patients. The idea was to put the stabilization package in the spending bill.
But the White House and Republican leadership also included language that would prevent the Obamacare payments from going toward any insurance plan that covers abortions — which Democrats said would adversely impact low-income women. Neither party was willing to concede, and the Obamacare stabilization funding was dropped altogether.
This is the third time a push to stabilize Obamacare has failed to see a vote.
Congress wants to stick to the easy stuff. But Trump is volatile.
If Republicans have learned anything in the past year under Trump’s leadership, it’s that the White House could throw just about anything their way.
Already, lawmakers have had to react to things Trump has done while they were out of town. Republicans have raised concerns about the White House’s push to escalate tariffs against China, a position that has traditionally pro-trade conservatives squirming.
There were even some rumblings about trying to tweak the spending bill. To be sure, any effort to roll back the funding package would be doomed politically in the Senate, where it’s unlikely to garner any Democratic support, but Trump talked to House Republican leaders about it nonetheless.
But for now the main things on the agenda are the easy stuff: The Senate is tackling judicial nominations and administration appointments, and the House is pushing a balanced-budget constitutional amendment messaging bill.
And remember, any week could be infrastructure week.