Congress braces for a chaotic January

Lawmakers are bracing for a chaotic January as they prepare to plunge into several fights in the first weeks of 2018.

The nightmare legislative storm comes after Congress headed home for the year without resolving spending battles or getting an agreement on contentious issues such as immigration and foreign surveillance.

It all means Congress must reach another deal to prevent a government shutdown by Jan. 19. Lawmakers also likely have to solve the issue of whether to protect young immigrants losing the protection of an Obama-era program shielding them from deportation beginning in March.

{mosads}Democrats may not agree to keep the government funded without a deal for the “Dreamers.”

“Jan. 19 is not going to be a fun day,” said House Freedom Caucus Chairman Mark Meadows (R-N.C.).

Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas), the No. 2 Senate Republican, compared the upcoming schedule to “Groundhog Day.”

“We get up and do the same thing over and over and over again. It’s maddening,” he said.

Here are the fights to watch when Congress returns.

Budget deal, shutdown deadline

Lawmakers are under pressure to get a deal to increase the budget caps and prevent automatic across-the-board spending cuts, known as sequestration.

Leadership, as well as the White House, have been negotiating behind closed doors for weeks trying to lock down a two-year budget agreement that would cover the rest of the 2018 fiscal year, as well as fiscal 2019.

But, thus far, a deal has remained elusive, with both sides battling over how much to increase both defense and nondefense spending.

A senior administration official predicted that a deal on the caps would be reached in January.

“I think we’re actually making significant progress on finding that deal,” the aide said.

Once a budget deal is enacted, appropriators can start work on a package known as an “omnibus” that would fund the entire federal government through next September.

Lawmakers will also have to work to avert a shutdown by Jan. 19.

It will be the third shutdown fight since the start of December, with lawmakers likely to pass another short-term bill to buy appropriators time to craft the omnibus.

Disaster aid

The Senate punted a House-passed disaster aid bill after leadership couldn’t get an agreement to speed up debate of the legislation in December.

The $81 billion package provides aid for communities affected by recent hurricanes in Texas, Florida, Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands, as well as wildfires in California.

The Senate is expected to take the legislation up once they return to Washington, with Cornyn and fellow Texas GOP Sen. Ted Cruz wanting more funding for their state’s Hurricane Harvey recovery efforts.

“More work needs to be done to make sure that it does enough, especially for Texas,” Cruz said.

He said his state, which he said had up to $180 billion in hurricane damage, would only be eligible for a small portion of the money in the House bill.

But any push to help Texas would likely set off a demand from other delegations for help responding to wildfires in California, as well as additional funding for hurricane relief in Puerto Rico.

Rep. Luis Gutiérrez (D-Ill.), who has traveled multiple times to the island to view the devastation from Hurricane Maria, said that Puerto Rico needs an estimated $94 billion to rebuild.


The Senate is eyeing a vote on an agreement linking a fix for the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program and border security.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) has promised to bring a potential bill up for a vote in January if senators can finish legislation by then.

But divisions remain on key issues, including if those covered by DACA should get citizenship, how many individuals would be covered and what security provisions would be part of a package.

“Everybody’s going to have to hold their nose a bit and take a little bit of a loss in order to solve the problem. That’s the balance that we have to get to. Are we there yet? No. But I think we will get there,” said Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart (R-Fla.).

House conservatives have resisted a legislative fix on DACA.

Rep. Steve King (R-Iowa), an immigration hawk, spoke with Trump before the holidays urging him to keep his campaign pledge to end DACA. King said he wants the negotiations to incorporate proposals like making English the official language of the U.S. and ending birthright citizenship for children of immigrants in the country illegally.

Speaker Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) promised conservatives upon taking his post in 2015 that he would not bring up any immigration bill that lacked support from a majority of Republicans, meaning any DACA-border security deal is sure to face a tough path in the House.

Surveillance reform

The short-term spending bill included a temporary extension of an electronic surveillance program, known as Section 702 of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA). The program will expire with the stopgap measure on Jan. 19 unless lawmakers can act in time on a longer-term reauthorization.

Members of the Freedom Caucus secured a commitment from GOP leaders, in exchange for their votes on the stopgap funding bill, that they would be allowed to offer requested amendments to a long-term FISA reauthorization.

Current law allows the National Security Agency to collect communications of foreigners abroad without a warrant, even if they are in contact with Americans in the U.S.

Federal investigators can search those communications without needing a warrant either, which privacy proponents say violates constitutional protections.

Members of the House Judiciary Committee have sought more limits on viewing information about Americans in contact with foreign targets of surveillance. Freedom Caucus conservatives are also seeking more privacy protections.

The Judiciary panel previously advanced a bipartisan bill to reauthorize the program. But a competing version from the House Intelligence Committee would not establish as many new privacy controls.

Health-care fixes

A pair of GOP senators are expected to try to push two ObamaCare stabilization proposals after failing to get them included in the end-of-year funding measure.

GOP Sens. Susan Collins (Maine) and Lamar Alexander (Tenn.) agreed to punt the two bills — one providing two years of cost-sharing reduction payments and a second funding “reinsurance” programs — after House conservatives and Senate Democrats signaled they wouldn’t support including them in the continuing resolution.

“We will offer it after the first of the year when the Senate will consider the omnibus spending bill, the Children’s Health Insurance Program [CHIP] reauthorization, funding for Community Health Centers, and other legislation,” they said in a joint statement.

Lawmakers will also have to find a way to ensure the CHIP program remains funded after March. The program’s authorization expired in September, and a bipartisan deal on a long-term funding plan has remained elusive.

House Republicans remain opposed to measures to help stabilize insurance markets set up by a law they hate. Any effort to ensure passage of the legislation would likely have to be in a package already expected to get significant support from Democrats.

“I think the administration made a commitment to Susan Collins. How we can help with that commitment becomes the fundamental question. And right now, there’s a lot of work that needs to be done,” Meadows said.

Tags Budget Immigration John Cornyn Lamar Alexander Mario Diaz-Balart Mark Meadows Mitch McConnell Paul Ryan Shutdown Steve King Susan Collins Tax reform Ted Cruz
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