When Congress returns Monday, lawmakers will confront numerous critical issues — including trade, immigration and digital privacy — but they will be hard-pressed to act.
An absence of hard deadlines and the political realities of an election year mean that the $1.3 trillion spending bill that President Trump begrudgingly signed into law last month is probably the last significant legislation to pass Congress before voters go to polls in November.
Instead, the House is preparing to take a largely symbolic vote on a constitutional amendment requiring a balanced federal budget and to try to reverse some spending while also finishing up a banking deregulation bill and drafting legislation to address the opioid crisis.
The Senate, meanwhile, is likely to spend much of the rest of the year trying to confirm Trump nominees — including more judges as well as the president’s picks to lead the State Department and the CIA after last month’s Cabinet shuffle.
The lack of high-stakes legislating — such as last year’s all-hands-on-deck GOP efforts to undo the Affordable Care Act, which ultimately failed, and pass a landmark tax overhaul, which is now law — is prompting grumbles from rank-and-file Republicans eager to do more, with their majority at stake in November’s midterm elections.
“It was a darn good year — taxes were down, regulations were down, the economy was growing,” said Rep. Jim Jordan (R-Ohio), a co-founder of the conservative House Freedom Caucus, describing 2017. “But 2018? We’ve done one [spending] bill that the American people strongly dislike, and certainly Republican voters strongly dislike. . . . So, yeah, we got to do more this year.”
But there are obstacles to taking decisive action on key GOP agenda items over the next seven months. A razor-thin Senate majority, deep intraparty divides and a limited Democratic appetite for bipartisan cooperation are limiting what Republican leaders are entertaining for the months ahead.
The Trump administration’s plans for an ambitious infrastructure initiative have generated little enthusiasm on Capitol Hill, where conservative lawmakers are wary of authorizing more federal spending, while Democrats are pushing to pay for a more extensive plan by rolling back some of the GOP’s tax cuts — a complete nonstarter for Republicans.
Immigration talks have come to a standstill after a frantic effort to cut a deal that would protect young undocumented immigrants known as “dreamers” from deportation fell short last month in a flurry of sniping between the parties. With Trump’s cancellation of the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program in court-ordered limbo, probably until next year, there is little appetite to rekindle talks before the election.
And while Trump’s recent decisions to slap tariffs on foreign goods have made scores of lawmakers anxious about an emerging trade war, GOP congressional leaders are loath to rein in the vast powers Congress has delegated to the president to set trade policy. The House Ways and Means Committee will hold a hearing Thursday to examine the tariffs, but efforts to roll them back have not gained significant traction.
Instead, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) appears to be gearing up to grind through confirmations, including potentially tricky fights to install Mike Pompeo as secretary of state, Rear Adm. Ronny L. Jackson as secretary of veterans affairs and Gina Haspel as CIA director.
Pompeo could face a confirmation hearing as soon as this week, where he is likely to get pointed questions about the Trump administration’s foreign policy objectives — particularly with regard to North Korea. Jackson, meanwhile, is facing widespread skepticism about his qualifications to lead VA after serving as White House physician.
Haspel’s nomination has generated fierce opposition from many Democrats and tough questions from key Republicans over her role in post-9/11 “enhanced interrogation techniques” that critics have described as torture.
The bulk of the public attention on Capitol Hill this week, however, won’t be focused on lawmakers but on Mark Zuckerberg. The Facebook founder and chief executive is set to testify before Senate and House committees in separate appearances Tuesday and Wednesday to address the company’s privacy practices in the wake of revelations that a political firm employed by the Trump campaign accessed the private data of 87 million Facebook users.
Although the klieg lights will shine brightly on the digital- privacy issue this week, there are no concrete plans among lawmakers to pursue new regulations for the tech industry to respond to the Facebook revelations or any of the other high- profile data breaches that have eroded public trust in Silicon Valley — though that could change after Zuckerberg’s testimony.
House leaders have high hopes of pushing through a new farm bill and perhaps even a fresh round of tax cuts — or at least forcing a vote on permanently extending the middle-class cuts that are set to sunset in 2025 under last year’s GOP bill.
For the moment, the House agenda appears trained on reestablishing the Republican Party’s fiscal bona fides after passing tax and spending packages that together are expected to create trillion-dollar-a-year budget deficits for the foreseeable future.
On Thursday, members will vote to advance a balanced- budget amendment to the Constitution — one that would require congressional supermajorities to engage in deficit spending or increase taxes. It will be the first vote on such an amendment since 2011, when a largely identical measure failed to gain the two-thirds vote needed for passage.
House conservatives hailed the vote — which would need an unlikely Senate supermajority and ratification by three-fourths of the states to take effect — as a needed step toward fiscal rectitude.
“Washington has demonstrated time and time again it lacks the political will to make the tough decisions required to contain the growth of government and spend within its means,” said Rep. Mark Walker (R-N.C.), chairman of the Republican Study Committee.
But House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) slammed the vote in a statement Friday, calling it “an act of breathtaking hypocrisy” that would lead to cuts to entitlement programs.
“Republicans think they can hoodwink the American people with an amendment purpose-built to force devastating cuts in Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security,” she said.
Although the constitutional amendment faces long odds, GOP leaders say they have identified a procedural shortcut to trim spending — taking advantage of a rarely used method to roll back already enacted appropriations. House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) is working with White House officials to identify at least $30 billion in cuts, according to GOP officials familiar with the plan.
“Rescissions” legislation can be passed by simple majorities in the House and Senate, though the political gantlet it must endure is hardly simple: Republican appropriators are already balking at undermining the carefully crafted spending deal that passed with bipartisan majorities last month.
Rep. Charlie Dent (R-Pa.), who chairs a House Appropriations subcommittee, said pursuing the cuts would undermine bipartisan cooperation and make it harder to pass future spending bills.
“It will be very difficult to strike any new agreements going forward, and not just on spending matters, either,” he said. “I suspect it would have a chilling effect on reaching agreements on any other issue.”
Jordan said he was all for pursuing cuts but was afraid the effort was too late.
“Let’s be honest, for goodness’s sake; the real time to deal with this was two weeks ago when we put together a bill that just wasn’t consistent in any way with what we told the people we were going to do as Republicans,” he said.