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Congress’s month from hell, explained

The House and Senate have returned to face an enormous to-do list.

Mark Reinstein/Corbis via Getty

Update: President Trump struck a deal with Congressional leaders on several of these matters on Wednesday — read about that here.

Original story: Congress has just kicked off its month from hell.

By the end of the September, they have to fund the government, raise the debt ceiling, pass disaster aid, and reauthorize several major government programs or agencies.

Failure at any of these tasks will be politically disastrous. But the GOP will have to overcome serious divisions within their own party, and successfully deal with Democrats, to get them all done.

Meanwhile, the GOP is also desperate to jump-start its stalled partisan agenda. But the Senate parliamentarian threw a wrench into the works last week, by ruling that the “budget reconciliation” instructions that can let Republicans pass a health bill with a simple majority will expire on ... you guessed it, the end of September.

Finally, President Donald Trump has complicated things further by announcing that he’ll sunset the DACA program, which protected about 800,000 unauthorized immigrants who came here as children or young teenagers from deportation — but that he wants Congress to fix the mess he’s creating sometime in the next six months.

Even that may not be all. Some senators also hope to pass a bipartisan bill to help shore up Obamacare’s individual insurance markets, since insurers have to finalize their 2018 plans by ... yet again, the end of September.

It’s surely a formidable number of things that have to get done in a short amount of time. But as far as the mandatory measures, it’s possible that several will be combined in the same bill or bills. And some of those dramatic deadlines can be fudged with short-term extensions if longer-term deals aren’t reached in time. (Indeed, there are signs that December is already shaping up to be another month from hell.)

It’s the more aspirational items on the GOP agenda, like Obamacare repeal, tax reform, and funding for a wall in the US-Mexico border, that are likely to fall through the cracks, for the time being at least. So we don’t yet know precisely how things will shape up, here’s what the agenda is looking like now.

The big three must-pass items: hurricane money, lifting the debt ceiling, and government funding

If you had any doubt what Republican Senate leaders’ top priorities were this month, Mitch McConnell helpfully clarified them in a tweet Tuesday afternoon:

What this tells us is that, for now, McConnell is focused not on making another run at health reform or getting tax reform started — the GOP’s partisan agenda — but instead on the three major things that, according to the bipartisan consensus, have to happen this month. Those are:

  • Appropriating more hurricane aid money: In the wake of Hurricane Harvey (and with a new worryingly powerful hurricane approaching), FEMA’s Disaster Relief Fund is running out of money to fund aid operations in affected areas. The agency needs more money.
  • Raising the debt ceiling: The debt ceiling — the total cap on debt the federal government can issue to pay for its spending — must be raised by the end of the month. (The deadline is inexact, and depends how much debt is issued in the coming weeks.) If this doesn’t happen, the United States will default on its debt, something economic experts say would be catastrophic for the economy.
  • Preventing a government shutdown: Funding for the federal government runs out after September 30, so if Congress doesn’t appropriate more money, we’ll have another government shutdown like the one that occurred in 2013.

You might think getting all three done would be easy enough. Every lawmaker would probably agree that more money for hurricane aid is necessary, that the US shouldn’t default on its debt, and that the government shouldn’t shut down.

But in recent years, conservative anti-spending activists and lawmakers have often attempted to play hardball with must-pass measures like these, demanding major policy concessions — usually big spending cuts — in exchange for their votes. Democrats have recoiled from these demands, and high-stakes showdowns tend to ensue.

This time around, though, Democratic leaders are offering to back Harvey aid and a three-month debt limit increase. The Trump administration also wants to tackle those two issues together. But the Democratic offer of a three-month debt limit hike would force Congress to revisit the debt ceiling issue in December, when Republican leaders would prefer a longer-term extension that would last through the 2018 elections, and let them move on to other issues like tax reform later this year.

Then, on government funding, there’s some question of what President Trump himself will do. Earlier this year, he suggested he might demand funding for his border wall be included in such a bill. However, the latest word is that with hurricane relief dominating the agenda, he may be willing to put off this fight — perhaps with an extension of government funding until the end of December.

Now, the big three aren’t the only must-pass measures on Congress’s docket. There are agency- and program-specific end-of-the-month deadlines for passing a military spending authorization bill, funding the Children’s Health Insurance Program, and reauthorizing the Federal Aviation Administration and the National Flood Insurance Program. But if Congress doesn’t get around to these, they’ll almost surely pass short-term extensions that let these agencies and programs keep functioning.

Meanwhile, a lot needs to happen for the GOP to revive its stalled agenda

All of the above is basically about keeping the government’s lights on (or preventing a default) — keeping things functional. But when Republicans won in 2016, they had much grander, transformational ambitions.

Specifically, they wanted to repeal and replace Obamacare, and they wanted to reform the nation’s tax code. And they concocted a complex legislative strategy that they hoped would let them pass both of those big bills without any Democratic support — bypassing the Senate’s filibuster first for one, and then for the other with the special budget reconciliation process.

In July, the GOP’s health bill failed in the Senate. But since it failed by just a single vote, there was at least some hope in the party (and in the White House) that the measure could be revived later.

On Friday, though, the Senate parliamentarian made that far more difficult, with a ruling that the “reconciliation instructions” Congress passed earlier this year will expire at ... you guessed it, the end of September.

If the legislative calendar wasn’t so crowded, you could imagine this imminent deadline spurring the party to give Obamacare repeal one last shot. And indeed, the Trump administration appears to be pushing for just that, asking for a vote on a proposal by Sens. Lindsey Graham (R-SC) and Bill Cassidy (R-LA). But with so much other urgent business, a sudden successful vote on a major health bill seems unlikely.

The other consequence of the parliamentarian’s ruling is that Republicans may now face a choice between health care and tax reform.

To set up the budget reconciliation process again, the GOP will need to pass a new budget resolution. That’s a difficult enough task on its own, since conservatives and mainstream Republicans have been having trouble agreeing on spending levels; the House of Representatives has started the process, but they haven’t passed a budget yet.

But the other problem is that the Senate’s budget rules only allow the 51-vote budget reconciliation process to be used for one bill that affects spending and revenues. That means that unless the GOP combines tax reform and Obamacare repeal into one massive monstrosity of a bill, they’ll have to abandon one of the two. So it’ll be tough going ahead for the GOP’s top-tier partisan priorities.

And some even hope for bipartisan compromises on health care and immigration

Finally, if that all weren’t enough, some ambitious souls in Congress are hoping to strike bipartisan compromises on two topics: stabilizing Obamacare’s individual markets, and protecting the DREAMers.

With the failure of the GOP health bill, Senate HELP Committee Chair Lamar Alexander (R-TN) wants to pass some sort of package that will help bring more stability to the individual marketplaces.

For instance, Congress could end the drama over whether the Trump administration will choose to make cost-sharing reduction (CSR) payments by officially appropriating that money. But because insurers have to finalize their 2018 plans by the end of September, the time to do that would be in this crowded month.

Meanwhile, President Trump has added another measure to Congress’s to do list, by announcing that he’ll sunset the executive branch’s Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program. As for the 800,000 unauthorized immigrants who came here at a young age and are now at risk of deportation, he’s said their fate is up to Congress to decide.

So on Tuesday, Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-SC) and Senate Minority Whip Dick Durbin (D-IL) called on Congress to pass the DREAM Act, which would protect those immigrants. And Durbin, the number two in Democratic leadership, said that Congress must pass the DREAM Act this month — though his counterpart on the Republican side, John Cornyn, quickly said that wouldn’t happen.

Still, Republicans will need Democratic votes for those big three priorities of hurricane aid, raising the debt ceiling, and funding the government. It’s quite possible that some liberal Democrats could say they won’t vote for, say, any government funding bill that doesn’t help the DREAMers — employing hardball tactics similar to those the right has used on fights like these. If so, things could really get interesting.