Congress prepares to punt biggest political battles until after midterms

Congress is preparing to do what it does best: punt.

In a spending deal reached this past week, lawmakers agreed to postpone fights over funding President Trump’s border wall and reauthorizing the Violence Against Women Act (VAWA) until after the November midterm elections.

But there are still a host of federal programs slated to expire on Sept. 30, meaning lawmakers may need to pass additional stopgap measures if they can’t find a way forward.

Among the unresolved issues is whether to overhaul food stamps in the farm bill and whether to include trucking provisions in a reauthorization of the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA).{mosads}

Further complicating matters is the fact that there are just nine legislative days before the new fiscal year begins on Oct. 1. That’s putting the squeeze on both chambers, and lawmakers are starting to point fingers across the Capitol.

“I’m not getting a lot of movement from the Senate side on work requirements,” House Agriculture Committee Chairman Mike Conaway (R-Texas) told The Hill, referring to the proposed changes to the food stamp program. “We need to break the logjam.”

Before the House adjourned on Thursday for a weeklong recess, appropriators announced a spending deal to fund the Defense, Labor, Health and Human Services and Education departments in time for fiscal 2019 — a significant feat for Congress in recent years.

Lawmakers also sent a trio of other spending bills to Trump’s desk before House members left town for a weeklong recess.

But the spending agreement announced Thursday includes a continuing resolution (CR) to fund the rest of the government, including the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), through Dec. 7.

Trump has been demanding money for his promised wall along the U.S.-Mexico border, an issue that falls under the jurisdiction of DHS. But with Democrats fiercely opposed to the border wall, GOP leaders didn’t want to risk a pre-election government shutdown, so they decided to push the fight until after the midterm elections.

The CR also temporarily reauthorizes the Violence Against Women Act through Dec. 7.

The landmark legislation, which expires Sept. 30, supports federal programs and grants designed to combat domestic violence, sexual assault and stalking. It was first signed into law in 1994 and has been reauthorized ever since.

But Republicans and Democrats have been at odds over which version to bring to the floor this year.

Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee (D-Texas) teamed up with Democratic leaders this summer to introduce an enhanced VAWA bill, which includes new provisions to expand housing protections, provide economic security assistance for victims and strengthen judicial and law enforcement tools.

Some House Republicans, however, would prefer to pass an unaltered, six-month extension of VAWA so that they can have more time to write their own version of the bill.

“A six-month extension provides Congress the opportunity to hold hearings and make improvements to VAWA without threatening critical existing programs,” Rep. Brian Fitzpatrick (R-Pa.) said in a statement. “I urge House Leadership to bring up this extension for a vote immediately.”

VAWA was last authorized in 2013, when a handful of conservatives took issue with the bipartisan Senate version because it expanded protections for immigrants in the country illegally and transgender women. After a House GOP version of the bill failed, the lower chamber ended up passing the Senate’s version.

Jackson Lee said Republicans are reviewing her VAWA bill, but they have not yet spelled out what problems, if any, they have with her legislation.

“I’m hoping they will let us know as soon as possible,” Jackson Lee said. “We’ll be reaching out during this break time. But we’re not going to go quietly into the night.”

Democratic and Republican negotiators are also still working to hammer out differences between the House and Senate versions of the farm bill, which authorizes a number of key food and agriculture programs that are set to expire at the end of the month.

The House-passed version of the legislation would impose tougher work requirements on participants in the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), which provides food stamps for low-income Americans.

But conferees have struggled to reach a compromise, with Democrats staunchly opposed to the food stamp changes, prompting Trump to weigh in.

“Senator Debbie Stabenow [D-Mich.] and the Democrats are totally against approving the Farm Bill. They are fighting tooth and nail to not allow our Great Farmers to get what they so richly deserve,” Trump tweeted on Thursday. “Work requirements are imperative and the Dems are a NO. Not good!”

Conaway swatted down the idea that a short-term farm bill may be necessary, but he also told The Hill that he wouldn’t vote for the farm bill if it doesn’t overhaul SNAP.

Stabenow said she was committed to reaching a bipartisan agreement before the end-of-the-month deadline.

“The Senate passed a bipartisan #FarmBill that got 86 votes – the most ever,” she tweeted after Trump singled her out. “I’m not letting politics distract me from working across the aisle to finalize a good bill that will deliver certainty for farmers and families in Michigan and across the country.”

Adding to the legislative pile-up, the FAA’s legal authority is expiring at the end of this month, and lawmakers have yet to renew it.

The House passed a long-term FAA bill earlier this year, but the Senate has yet to bring any legislation to the floor. The chambers are now trying to pre-conference a long-term reauthorization in the hopes of avoiding the need for another short-term fix.

One issue that has stalled negotiations is the desire by some senators to include provisions providing uniformity across the country when it comes to meal and rest breaks for truck drivers.

Democrats, who in the past have fought to keep similar provisions out of other bills, worry that it will deny states the ability to require paid meal and rest breaks for truckers.

“The clock is ticking… It’s getting tough,” Rep. Peter DeFazio (D-Ore.), ranking member on the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, told Politico this past week. “On the other hand, maybe we could have a really short extension because [the Senate is] going to be in all October … And we get it done in November.”

Tags Brian Fitzpatrick Debbie Stabenow Donald Trump Mike Conaway Peter DeFazio Sheila Jackson Lee

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