Five fights awaiting Congress in 2020
Congress is set to return to a laundry list of divisive fights looming over its 2020 agenda when both chambers reconvene in the coming days.
Lawmakers will have to balance the Trump impeachment trial, which will suck up much of the oxygen in January, with several key legislative deadlines.
The balancing act will also take place amid the run-up to the 2020 election, with presidential politics increasingly seeping into congressional negotiations.
Here are five fights to watch in 2020.
The months-long impeachment fight is shifting to the Senate, where the chamber left for the holiday recess without a deal on rules for the trial, including a start date and whether any witnesses will be called.
Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) threw a curveball into the timeline by declining to say when she will send over the two articles of impeachment, though senators say they nonetheless expect the trial to commence in January.
Once impeachment is on the Senate floor, all other legislative business will likely be put on hold. Senators are expected to conduct trial proceedings six days a week, a schedule that promises to consume much if not all of January’s floor calendar.
With 67 votes needed to convict Trump, the outcome of the proceeding is all but guaranteed in the GOP-controlled chamber, where Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) has pledged to be in “total coordination” with the White House.
But Democrats are hoping to win over a handful of Republicans on their request for Ukraine-related documents and witnesses at the trial. They would need four GOP senators to break ranks to successfully call a witness for trial testimony.
“So far, neither Sen. McConnell, nor any Republican senator, has articulated a single good reason why the trial shouldn’t have these witnesses or these documents,” Senate Minority Leader Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) told reporters this week during a press conference.
President Trump’s trade deal — the U.S.-Mexico-Canada Agreement (USMCA) — passed the House in mid-December but is stuck in a holding pattern in the Senate until after the impeachment trial wraps up.
Ratification of the deal, meant to replace the Clinton-era North American Free Trade Agreement, would hand Trump an early election year win after months of closed-door negotiations with Pelosi initially made it unlikely the deal would move forward.
But Democrats were able to include tougher labor provisions that won over the support of unions and progressives, while also giving a major legislative win for vulnerable Democrats to tout back in their districts.
The Senate Finance Committee is scheduled to mark up the trade deal on Tuesday, and Senate GOP leaders expect they’ll ultimately be able to pass the USMCA early this year. The measure requires only a simple majority, instead of the 60 votes normally needed for advancing legislation.
Still, the deal unveiled in December initially prompted pushback from GOP senators who were largely cut out of the negotiations and worry the White House made too many concessions to House Democrats.
Sen. Pat Toomey (R-Pa.) has emerged as one of the most vocal GOP critics. He pledged in a Wall Street Journal opinion last month to vote against the deal, calling it the “only trade pact ever meant to diminish trade.”
Lawmakers are eyeing changes to surveillance authorities and the warrant application process in 2020.
Congress faces a mid-March deadline on expiring surveillance authorities under the USA Freedom Act after lawmakers extended the programs in mid-December for 90 days to give themselves more time to work out a larger agreement.
The sunset provisions include a controversial records program, known as Section 215, that gathers metadata on domestic text messages and phone calls. The Trump administration has urged Congress to reauthorize the program even though the National Security Agency shuttered it, with the White House arguing the authority should be retained in case it’s needed at a later date.
Two other provisions — one authorizing “roving” wiretaps, the other on lone wolf surveillance authority — are also set to expire.
In addition to the surveillance authorities, lawmakers are also homing in on reforms to the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) court and the warrant application process in the wake of a scathing report by Justice Department Inspector General Michael Horowitz on applications to surveil Trump campaign aide Carter Page.
One idea that has bipartisan support would be to allow the Justice Department inspector general to investigate misconduct by attorneys within the department, which current law prohibits.
Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) has pledged that FISA reforms “will be a top priority for the Judiciary Committee in 2020.”
House Democrats are making a renewed effort to get legislation to lower drug prices across the finish line this year after legislative action ran into partisan roadblocks and lobbying from outside groups in 2019.
Pelosi wants drug pricing legislation to be included in a package of expiring health care programs that face a May 22 deadline, with the hope that House passage could put pressure on the Republican-controlled Senate.
“When we return to Washington, our priority will be to continue a drumbeat across America to press the President and the GOP Senate to pass the Lower Drug Costs Now Act into law,” Pelosi wrote in a “Dear Colleague” letter that was sent to House Democrats this week.
The House passed Pelosi’s drug pricing bill last month but it ran into fierce criticism from Senate Republicans, including McConnell, who have declared the House bill dead on arrival and pledged that they will not take it up.
In the Senate, Finance Committee Chairman Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) has negotiated a narrower bill with Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.), the Finance Committee’s ranking member, but that too has garnered Republican pushback because of a provision that would limit Medicare drug price hikes to the rate of inflation.
Grassley has accused McConnell of urging Republicans not to support his bill, marking a rare high-profile clash between the Republican leader and a GOP committee chairman.
“Leadership doesn’t want it to come up,” Grassley told reporters last month.
Though Congress just passed a two-bill package that funds the government through Sept. 30, appropriators are already turning their attention to the fiscal 2021 funding process, which they expect to start within the first few months of 2020.
Lawmakers will need to juggle policy battles, including Trump’s expected request for border wall funding, with the growing influence of the 2020 presidential race, all under a truncated election-year congressional schedule.
House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) outlined an ambitious timeline, saying he hoped Congress will pass all 12 of the fiscal 2021 funding bills before Oct. 1. Unlike last year, lawmakers already have the top-line spending figures for both defense and non-defense as part of the two-year budget agreement, giving them a head start of sorts.
Senate Republicans, while saying they agreed with the spirit of Hoyer’s goal, said Congress was unlikely to meet the timeline. Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas) said he was “skeptical.”
“I think the election will decide a lot of that,” he added.
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