Lawmakers are returning to Washington without a clear strategy to tackle a massive pile-up of unresolved issues that are threatening a government shutdown in just three weeks.
“It seems leadership is taking a wait-and-see approach to how everything is going to work itself out in January,” one skeptical GOP lawmaker observed.
Before leaving town for the holidays, Congress passed a stopgap spending bill to keep the government’s lights on until Jan. 19. But GOP leaders punted contentious fights over immigration, health care, national security and disaster funding into the new year, meaning they’re once again facing a potential crisis of their own making.
With little time to spare, formal talks will resume this week.
The “Big Four” congressional leaders — Speaker Paul RyanPaul Davis RyanPaul Ryan researched narcissistic personality disorder after Trump win: book Paul Ryan says it's 'really clear' Biden won election: 'It was not rigged. It was not stolen' Democrats fret over Trump-district retirements ahead of midterms MORE (R-Wis.), Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnellAddison (Mitch) Mitchell McConnellLindsey Graham: Police need 'to take a firm line' with Sept. 18 rally attendees Manchin keeps Washington guessing on what he wants CEOs urge Congress to raise debt limit or risk 'avoidable crisis' MORE (R-Ky.), House Minority Leader Nancy PelosiNancy PelosiOn The Money: Democrats get to the hard part Biden discusses agenda with Schumer, Pelosi ahead of pivotal week Stefanik in ad says Democrats want 'permanent election insurrection' MORE (D-Calif.) and Senate Minority Leader Charles SchumerChuck SchumerBiden discusses agenda with Schumer, Pelosi ahead of pivotal week CEOs urge Congress to raise debt limit or risk 'avoidable crisis' If .5 trillion 'infrastructure' bill fails, it's bye-bye for an increasingly unpopular Biden MORE (D-N.Y.) — will try to map out a game plan at the Capitol on Wednesday when they meet with Trump’s budget director, Mick MulvaneyMick MulvaneyHeadhunters having hard time finding jobs for former Trump officials: report Trump holdovers are denying Social Security benefits to the hardest working Americans Mulvaney calls Trump's comments on Capitol riot 'manifestly false' MORE, and his legislative affairs director, Marc Short.
Then Ryan and McConnell will huddle with Trump at Camp David on Saturday and Sunday to discuss their 2018 agenda.
House lawmakers will have a small window to deal with the legislative logjam after deciding to come back to town a week after McConnell reconvenes the Senate.
The House will be back in session on Jan. 8 and will have just eight legislative days to strike a deal to avert a shutdown.
“I think the GOP leadership will be running the gauntlet. The question is: Will they be able to survive?” said Rep. Mark MeadowsMark MeadowsAllies see rising prospect of Trump 2024 White House bid The Hill's Morning Report - Presented by Facebook - US prepares vaccine booster plan House panel probing Jan. 6 attack seeks Trump records MORE (R-N.C.), chairman of the conservative House Freedom Caucus.
First up on lawmakers’ daunting to-do list is to reach a bipartisan agreement on boosting budget caps and preventing automatic across-the-board spending cuts, known as sequestration.
GOP and Democratic leaders, 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 a deal has remained elusive, with the two parties 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 rather than be punted further into 2018.
“I think we're actually making significant progress on finding that deal,” the official said.
Once a budget deal is enacted, appropriators can start crafting a trillion-dollar omnibus package that would fund the entire federal government through next September.
Congress also will need to take up a huge disaster aid package. Before Christmas the House cleared an $81 billion aid package for Americans afflicted by hurricanes in Texas, Florida and Puerto Rico, as well as wildfires in California. But the Senate pushed the issue into January.
It’s possible lawmakers may need to pass yet another short-term bill to buy appropriators more time to craft the omnibus.
Perhaps the biggest complication is Democrats’ demand that immigration measures be passed before any spending deal. Trump last year rescinded the Obama-era Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program, which shielded from deportation hundreds of thousands of young immigrants brought to the country illegally as children.
But Pelosi and Schumer are insisting Democrats won’t back any bipartisan budget deal without a permanent fix for these young immigrants known as “Dreamers.”
In exchange for certain protections for Dreamers, Republicans are seeking tougher border-security measures. And before the recess it appeared the two sides were nearing a deal on immigration.
“Many legislators are working feverishly towards a compromise,” Rep. Carlos CurbeloCarlos Luis CurbeloDirect air capture is a crucial bipartisan climate policy Biden's corporate tax hike is bad for growth — try a carbon tax instead Cheney fight stokes cries of GOP double standard for women MORE (R-Fla.), a Cuban-American lawmaker who has been pushing for a DACA fix, told The Hill. “I am very hopeful for January.”
But late last week Trump injected himself into the immigration debate once again, demanding that a controversial border wall be part of any immigration deal with the Democrats.
“Look, I wouldn’t do a DACA plan without a wall. Because we need it,” Trump told The New York Times, repeating a position he had taken on Twitter. “We see the drugs pouring into the country, we need the wall.”
McConnnell has promised to bring a potential bill up for a vote in January if negotiators can finish legislation by then.
But a massive wall on the U.S.-Mexico border is a non-starter for Democrats. And divisions remain on other key issues: Should those covered by DACA receive citizenship? How many individuals would be covered? And what security provisions would be part of a package?
If Congress fails to provide safeguards for Dreamers this month, Democrats are warning Republicans they’ll have to fund the government on their own.
That certainly would set up a showdown with conservative hard-liners like Meadows, who has sided with Trump in demanding funding for a wall, an end to "chain migration" and a ban on the visa lottery program.
“It will be up to Democrats to determine whether that is something they will accept,” Meadows said in a phone interview. “Most conservatives are willing to address the DACA issue, as long as we address the national security issue of having a secure border and secure country.”
Congress will also have to grapple with a spate of contentious health-care issues.
Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine) dropped her demand that measures to help stabilize the ObamaCare insurance marketplaces be included in the stopgap bill last month, but she is still seeking to get it done in early 2018.
One measure would provide two years of cost-sharing reduction payments and the other would fund “reinsurance” programs.
McConnell initially promised to pass the two bills before the end of 2017 in exchange for Collins’s vote on taxes, but House conservatives signaled they wouldn’t back including them in the most recent continuing resolution.
But after taking heat for her vote on tax reform — a bill which repealed ObamaCare’s individual mandate — Collins may feel more pressure to get the issue resolved in the next spending bill.
The last continuing resolution did include money for the expired Children’s Health Insurance Program. But it only has enough funding through March, meaning lawmakers will have to revisit the issue in the omnibus.
Finally, Congress will need to extend a government surveillance program authorized by Section 702 of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA).
Freedom Caucus members last month had held up funding for the government over objections the spying program did not include strong enough civil protections.
But the conservative group allowed the funding bill to move forward after securing a commitment from GOP leaders that they’d be able to offer amendments to a longer-term FISA bill. The 702 program got a short-term extension in the last continuing resolution, but it will expire the same day government funding runs out, Jan. 19.
Jordain Carney and Cristina Marcos contributed.