Trump, Congress face packed September agenda

Lawmakers are gearing up for a four-month legislative sprint when they return to Washington in September. 

With fights looming over major policy battles and key pieces of the GOP agenda on the line, Republicans will need to juggle back-to-back legislative deadlines with avoiding a government shutdown in the first year of unified government. 

With a tight schedule and competing demands, leadership faces almost no room for error.

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And their task is being further complicated by the war of words between President Trump and a growing number of GOP lawmakers. The rhetorical bombs have kept long-simmering frustrations in the headlines ahead of the crucial stretch.

Here’s the laundry list of policy fights Congress faces starting in September: 

Fund the government

Lawmakers in September will need to pass legislation to fund the government to avoid a shutdown on Oct. 1.

They’re expected to try to approve a short-term funding bill — known as a continuing resolution — that would set up another fight at the end of the year. 

The big problem is Trump’s demand that a measure include money for his southern border wall. The president threatened during a Phoenix rally that he’s willing to shut down the government to get it, but a House GOP aide said big fights could be kicked to December.

Democrats say they’ll block any bill with money for the wall.

Raise the debt ceiling

Treasury Secretary Steven MnuchinSteven Terner MnuchinThe Hill's Morning Report — After contentious week, Trump heads for Japan Artist designs stamp to put Harriet Tubman's face over Jackson's on bills On The Money: Senate passes disaster aid bill after deal with Trump | Trump to offer B aid package for farmers | House votes to boost retirement savings | Study says new tariffs to double costs for consumers MORE has given Congress until Sept. 29 to raise the country’s debt ceiling, setting up possible back-to-back votes on unpopular fiscal issues.

Republicans are projecting confidence on the debt bill, despite demands from conservatives that it include spending cuts.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnellAddison (Mitch) Mitchell McConnellThe Hill's 12:30 Report: Trump orders more troops to Mideast amid Iran tensions What if 2020 election is disputed? Immigration bills move forward amid political upheaval MORE (R-Ky.) said at an event in Kentucky that there is “zero chance” Congress won’t raise the debt ceiling. And House Speaker Paul RyanPaul Davis RyanAmash storm hits Capitol Hill Debate with Donald Trump? Just say no Ex-Trump adviser says GOP needs a better health-care message for 2020 MORE (R-Wis.) added there were plenty of options.  

Democrats are putting the onus on GOP leadership to come up with a strategy. 

The GOP will need Democratic votes, and the minority will not agree to conservative demands for spending cuts to be part of the package.

Rep. Mark Meadows (R-N.C.), the chairman of the House Freedom Caucus, has warned that a debt-ceiling bill should not be connected to any other legislation and should include restrictions to limit future spending.

Harvey aid

A new issue that Congress must deal with is an aid package for Houston and other communities devastated by Hurricane Harvey. It’s not clear what the bill will be, but Congress is likely to be asked for tens of billions.

There has already been talk about merging the disaster aid with legislation to keep the government open or to raise the debt ceiling.

Such a merger makes sense for GOP leaders, as it would likely get more Republicans to vote for the larger package.

Trump has said he views disaster aid as a separate issue, however, and Meadows also says the emergency bill should be considered on its own.

Congress also has to reauthorize the National Flood Insurance Program by the end of September. 

Health care

Sens. Lamar AlexanderAndrew (Lamar) Lamar AlexanderOvernight Health Care — Presented by PCMA — Senators unveil sweeping bipartisan health care package | House lawmakers float Medicare pricing reforms | Dems offer bill to guarantee abortion access Bipartisan senators reveal sweeping health care package Collins offering bill to boost battery research as GOP pushes energy 'innovation' MORE (R-Tenn.) and Patty MurrayPatricia (Patty) Lynn MurrayOvernight Health Care — Presented by PCMA — Senators unveil sweeping bipartisan health care package | House lawmakers float Medicare pricing reforms | Dems offer bill to guarantee abortion access Bipartisan senators reveal sweeping health care package Senate chairman says bipartisan health care package coming Thursday MORE (D-Wash.) are trying to craft a bill to stabilize the health insurance markets and provide funding for ObamaCare’s cost-sharing reduction payments. 

Their push has drawn skepticism from top Republicans, who oppose what they view as a bailout of insurance companies without any reforms. 

McConnell acknowledged after Republicans failed to pass a “skinny” ObamaCare repeal bill that the pathway forward is “murky.” 

Senate Republicans still have the House-passed ObamaCare repeal bill on the calendar. 

The move could allow them to try to bring back the legislation if they can come up with a deal that gets 51 votes.

GOP Sens. Bill CassidyWilliam (Bill) Morgan CassidyBipartisan senators reveal sweeping health care package Senate passes bill to undo tax increase on Gold Star military families Overnight Health Care — Presented by Campaign for Accountability — House passes drug pricing bills amid ObamaCare row | Senate Republicans running away from Alabama abortion law | Ocasio-Cortez confronts CEO over K drug price tag MORE (La.), Lindsey GrahamLindsey Olin GrahamTrump declassification move unnerves Democrats Climate change is a GOP issue, too New Yorker cover titled 'The Shining' shows Graham, McConnell, Barr polishing Trump's shoes MORE (S.C.) and Dean HellerDean Arthur HellerThis week: Barr back in hot seat over Mueller report Trump suggests Heller lost reelection bid because he was 'hostile' during 2016 presidential campaign Trump picks ex-oil lobbyist David Bernhardt for Interior secretary MORE (Nev.) are pushing their proposal, and Trump has signaled he wants Republicans to take a second shot at trying to nix ObamaCare. 

But Republicans face a hard deadline if they want to pass health-care reform with a simple majority.

Lawmakers used the budget for the 2017 fiscal year — which expires at the end of September — to set up the health-care bill. The budget includes special rules that would allow the health-care bill to evade a Senate filibuster.

Some GOP aides have floated the idea that the special rules could be used beyond the end of the 2017 fiscal year — and that they would work until Congress approves a new budget for 2018.

But the Senate parliamentarian has ruled the bill's simple majority status expires at the end of September — setting up another end-of-the-month hurdle for GOP leadership. 

Tax reform

GOP lawmakers, eager for a legislative victory, are hoping to make good on the pledge to reform the tax code this year.

Republicans are planning to go it alone on tax reform, using the same reconciliation rules as they did for health-care reform to prevent Senate Democrats from filibustering their legislation.

Trump used a speech in Missouri to pressure lawmakers — and red-state Democrats up for reelection next year — to make good on their promises to simplify the tax code, saying he doesn't “want to be disappointed by Congress."

And Mnuchin, who was in Kentucky recently with McConnell to pitch tax reform, predicted details will be released this month.

Nominations

Conservative groups are trying to pressure Democrats, who they argue are blocking the picks from getting a fair vote and wasting time by demanding 30 hours of debate for every judicial nominee.

And the Judicial Crisis Network is backing a proposal from Sen. James LankfordJames Paul LankfordSenate passes disaster aid bill after deal with Trump Congress reaches deal on disaster aid Bipartisan group of senators introduce legislation designed to strengthen cybersecurity of voting systems MORE (R-Okla.) that would cut down the amount of debate time for non-Cabinet nominations, after they clear an initial hurdle, from 30 hours to eight. 

“I'm actually open to changing some of [that] ... with regard to the motion to proceed and post cloture time on some of these [nominations],” Sen. John ThuneJohn Randolph ThuneFrustration boils over with Senate's 'legislative graveyard' Hillicon Valley: Assange hit with 17 more charges | Facebook removes record 2.2B fake profiles | Senate passes anti-robocall bill | Senators offer bill to help companies remove Huawei equipment Senate passes anti-robocall bill MORE (R-S.D.) told The Hill ahead of the recess.  

Democrats are threatening to try to block Sam Clovis, Trump’s pick to be the Department of Agriculture’s chief scientist. Clovis has made a number of controversial statements in the past and is a well-known doubter of the science behind climate change. 

Immigration

Trump vowed during his campaign to end the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program, which defers deportation for people brought into the country illegally as children and allows them to apply for work permits.

Unless he halts the program by Sept. 5, DACA will be challenged in court. If the administration does not defend DACA, it will effectively be ending it.

White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders said the administration is in the process of finalizing its decision with an announcement expected on Tuesday amid speculation that Trump will scrap the Obama-era program.

Some GOP lawmakers are already publicly warning the administration against canceling DACA, including Rep. Mike Coffman (R-Colo.), who announced he will try to force a vote on his bill extending DACA work permits by starting a discharge petition.

And White House officials floated using the program to try to strike a larger deal on immigration that would include border wall funding and curbs on legal immigration, according to McClatchy. 

But Sen. Dick DurbinRichard (Dick) Joseph DurbinSenate Democrats to House: Tamp down the impeachment talk Threat of impeachment takes oxygen out of 2019 agenda Senate Democrats request watchdog, Red Cross probe DHS detention facilities MORE (Ill.), the No. 2 Senate Democrat, publicly shot down the trade, calling it a “nonstarter.” 

Defense

Senators are expected to turn to the annual bill setting out Trump’s defense and foreign policy goals in September. 

Leadership tried to get a deal to take up and pass the National Defense Authorization Act in one day before Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman John McCainJohn Sidney McCainClimate change is a GOP issue, too It's Joe Biden's 2020 presidential nomination to lose Meghan McCain on Pelosi-Trump feud: 'Put this crap aside' and 'work together for America' MORE (R-Ariz.) went back to Arizona for brain cancer treatment last month. 

But Sen. Rand PaulRandal (Rand) Howard PaulOvernight Defense: 1,500 troops heading to Mideast to counter Iran | Trump cites Iran tensions to push through Saudi arms sale | Senate confirms Army, Navy chiefs before weeklong recess Trump to send 1,500 troops to Middle East to counter Iran Frustration boils over with Senate's 'legislative graveyard' MORE (R-Ky.), pushing for a vote on his amendments, objected. That’s left the timeline for action in limbo.

The annual bill normally gets bipartisan support, but its status as must-pass legislation also makes it a policy lightning rod. Hours before Trump outlined his strategy pivot in Afghanistan, Paul announced he would use the bill to try to sunset the 2001 and 2002 war authorizations. 

Surveillance

Accusations on incidental surveillance of the Trump transition team — and questions from lawmakers about whether their own communications were swept up — has put a debate on surveillance at the center of a political firestorm. 

Section 702 is part of a swath of amendments to the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act scheduled to expire at the end of the year. The provision allows intelligence agencies to monitor communications of foreign officials overseas, but it can also incidentally sweep up the communications of U.S. citizens. 

Graham demanded an answer earlier this year about whether his communications are being collected and if his identity is has been “unmasked” within the administration.

Experts, separately, say it’s unlikely that former national security adviser Michael Flynn’s communications with the Russian ambassador were captured under Section 702.

But privacy-minded Republicans are signaling that they want to reform Section 702 on the floor, while progressive Democrats have also raised questions about the surveillance program for years.

Reauthorize CHIP 

Congress needs to extend the Children's Health Insurance Program (CHIP), a program that has been overshadowed for months because of the fight over repealing ObamaCare. 

Senior aides in both parties are confident they can keep the reauthorization bipartisan, but lawmakers still need to work out several key issues including what else, if anything, will be attached to the legislation. 

With CHIP competing with other must-pass bills, lawmakers could face a time crunch to make the end-of-September deadline. But lawmakers could get some flexibility with states not expected to run out of money for their programs right away.

Reauthorize the Federal Aviation Administration

Lawmakers have until the end of September to extend authorization for the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA).

They could face a time squeeze to meet the deadline without a temporary extension. Both the House and Senate FAA bills have yet to be considered on the floor, and the two versions will need to be merged into one bill and passed for a second time. 

The policy fight isn’t without controversy. The House bill contains a plan to transfer the country’s air navigation system to a nonprofit corporation — an idea that previously failed to gain traction but has been endorsed by the president.