Congress convenes Monday with a hefty legislative to-do list, facing limited time and potential partisan land mines — including a possible push by House Democrats to impeach President Trump.
Tighter gun restrictions, a trade pact and efforts to lower prescription drugs also crowd the agenda.
In some ways, the next few months represent the 116th Congress’s last chance to pass major legislation until 2021. Lawmakers in both parties agree the partisan politics of the 2020 election will kick into high gear as soon as January, making any dealmaking and compromise all the more difficult.
That doesn’t leave Congress much time. The House only has 13 legislative days in September before they leave for another two-week recess — and only 45 legislative days left in the year. Senators, meanwhile, are expected to be in town 53 days.
The House plans to vote the week of Sept. 16 on a continuing resolution that would kick the government funding deadline back several weeks, House Majority Leader Steny H. Hoyer (D-Md.) told colleagues. While Hoyer did not specify a date, he previously floated Nov. 22 as the new deadline.
The timing needs to be finalized with the Senate, but two senior GOP officials indicated that the Senate would likely go along with such a plan, eager for more time to work on their own spending priorities. The officials spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss private deliberations.
While the House has passed 10 of the 12 annual spending bills, the Senate has yet to vote on any. On Friday, the Senate Appropriations Committee announced that subcommittees would begin work on bills for the Pentagon, State and Education departments as well as Health and Human Services.
Trump remains the one wild card in the spending process: Late last year, the president endorsed a shutdown because the spending bills did not include money to build his border barrier, a divide he repeatedly promised Mexico would finance. The current package is unlikely to include the money, with Democrats scoffing at that plan. And while congressional Republicans have little appetite for another shutdown showdown, Trump could have other ideas.
“I think Republicans get caught holding the bag on that one each time,” said Sen. Mike Braun (R-Ind.) when asked Friday if a shutdown was in the cards again this fall.
A series of mass shootings that started shortly after Congress left Washington for the extended recess — first Gilroy, Calif.; then El Paso, then Dayton, Ohio, now Odessa, Tex., — has increased pressure for action to levels not seen since the aftermath of the 2012 Sandy Hook shooting.
But it remains unclear what, if anything, lawmakers will be able to agree on. Democratic leaders are pushing Trump and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) to move on a House-passed bill expanding federal background checks, as well as legislation encouraging states to create “red flag” laws allowing police to temporarily seize weapons from individuals judged to pose a threat.
Trump has vacillated on what exactly he would be willing to support, though he seems to have moved away from strengthening background checks and toward some version of red-flag laws, along with some other modest tightening to existing laws. A White House package could be released sometime later this month.
“The president needs to step up here and set some guidelines for what he would do,” Sen. Roy Blunt (R-Mo.) said Sunday on NBC’s “Meet the Press” when asked whether expanded background checks would get a vote.
In his most recent comments on the subject, McConnell told radio host Hugh Hewitt this week that he would only put legislation on the Senate floor that he believed would make it into law.
Democrats, meanwhile, are hoping to push beyond background checks. The House Judiciary Committee is expected to advance three bills this week for floor votes later this month, including red-flag legislation and a ban on high-capacity ammunition magazines. Later in the month, the panel will hold a hearing on banning military-style assault weapons.
Republican support for those measures ranges from limited to nonexistent, but there is also a growing recognition in the GOP that doing nothing is not an option.
“We’ve got to talk about it and start doing some things or else I think we’ll get overwhelmed to where we’ll lose down the road,” Braun said.
The House Judiciary Committee is expected to vote this week on a resolution giving itself additional tools in its investigation of Trump, a move the panel cast as the first formal step to possibly impeaching the president.
The Democratic Party base and 2020 presidential candidates favor an impeachment inquiry, but House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) has been reluctant, pointing to the lack of public support.
The clamor for impeachment passed a major milestone over the recess, with a majority of House Democrats — 134 — now supporting an impeachment inquiry. But so far only two of 31 Democrats in districts Trump won in 2016 have joined that call — and those members are the very individuals Pelosi is concerned with protecting politically.
The Judiciary resolution, which will be voted on Wednesday, is still being finalized. But those familiar with the resolution expect that it will allow panel staff to question witnesses for an additional hour during hearings. It would also allow the panel to discuss evidence in closed session, a move the panel wants to protect confidential information — potentially even grand jury material. Officials spoke on the condition of anonymity to freely discuss the plan.
The Judiciary panel has subpoenaed top Trump officials, including former Trump campaign manager Corey Lewandowski, to testify Sept. 17 about episodes of potential obstruction of justice laid out in former special counsel Robert S. Mueller III’s report. The committee also is expanding its probes of Trump to include promises of pardons to officials who break the law to carry out his policies, encouraging people to stay in his hotels while serving as president, and his alleged involvement in hush payments to women who say they had affairs with him.
The Trump administration wants Congress to clear the president’s new trade deal with Mexico and Canada this fall.
In a series of meetings before the August recess, House Democrats laid out a handful of demands they would need to be met to back USMCA, including protections for the environment and workers as well as changes to provisions they say bolster giant pharmaceutical companies. A Democratic working group on the matter spent the summer codifying those changes and presenting the language to U.S. Trade Rep. Robert E. Lighthizer.
Meanwhile, some Republicans are anxious for movement. Concerns about a recession spiked when lawmakers were gone, with investors and financial analysts increasingly worried that Trump’s trade wars are slowing the economy.
“Ninety-five percent of the world's consumers live outside of United States. I think the focus needs to remain on getting USMCA done,” Sen. Steve Daines (R-Mont.) said.
Lawmakers are searching for common ground on lowering prescription drug prices, an issue that has broad bipartisan support and even backing from Trump. Aides to Pelosi and a select group of House Democrats have been working largely behind closed doors on a prescription drug plan — one that would allow the federal government to negotiate prices with pharmaceutical companies. They face a difficult task crafting a plan that both passes muster with House liberals who want to take an aggressive approach and also allows for potential compromise with Republicans.