Crunch time is beginning for lawmakers, with several critical deadlines on the horizon when Congress begins a two-month summer session in June.
After a slow start on the legislative front this year, the House and Senate have at least eight key cutoffs to face when they return to work after Memorial Day.
House Speaker Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) had only one critical date to deal with during the first half of the year, as they struggled to complete last year’s appropriations bills before a stopgap ran out April 28. But the omnibus just signed into law by President Donald Trump only covers federal government spending for four more months, and a number of other programs dependent on continued federal support also are set to expire next fall.
Besides the deadline to pass a fiscal year 2018 plan to fund the federal government, Congress faces new targets to renew federal transportation programs, ensure flood insurance payments, and continue key medical and health-care programs. Lawmakers also have to take action soon to raise the federal debt limit.
Failure to act by the target dates carries a host of risks, from the threat of another government shutdown to a default on the federal debt. McConnell, in particular, has vowed to avoid any replay of any “fiscal cliff” crises.
In most cases, zero hour for the GOP leaders and the White House to avoid new crises falls on Sept. 30, or at the end of December. For now, Ryan and McConnell hope to wrap up work for the year on Dec. 15.
The actual number of working days for lawmakers to meet those deadlines, however, is increasingly small. Under the GOP’s official calendar, the House will only be in session a total of 43 days between now and Sept. 30 to accommodate a five-week recess set to start July 28. In total, there are less than 80 work days remaining before Republicans’ adjournment target.
Lawmakers already are warning they are likely to miss the Sept. 30 deadline to pass the 12 regular appropriations bills for the new fiscal year that begins Oct. 1. After only recently wrapping up the bills held over from last year, House and Senate appropriators are now pouring over the details of the FY 2018 budget that Trump sent to Capitol Hill on May 23. Even if they don’t follow that budget and adopt its $54 billion in cuts to domestic programs, appropriators still have no budget resolution setting out discretionary spending levels to follow in writing new bills.
McConnell said he will soon start negotiations with Democratic leaders about a follow-on deal to the two-year bipartisan budget agreement that provided relief from the Budget Control Act’s spending caps. However, those talks are not expected to resolve quickly, with the two sides likely to be far apart on levels of spending for defense and non-defense programs.
Even with a spending framework, action on the bills is expected to be slow, as policy add-ons that Republicans want generate controversy. As a result, lawmakers said a new continuing resolution may be necessary in September to prevent a shutdown and buy them more time to finish the bills. A CR running all the way to Dec. 15 is said to still be a possibility. So far, Ryan and McConnell have shown no interest in the “nice government shutdown” Trump threatened in a tweet before he agreed to since the omnibus earlier this month.
In contrast, there was much less activity when the federal debt limit expired March 15. The Treasury Department used “extraordinary measures” to ensure no default on the debt and those tools have been seen as enough to avoid dealing with the matter until the fall—possibly October or November.
However, Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin recently suggested he doesn’t want to risk having decisions affecting the credit of the U.S. bog down in a potential September spending battle. He told the House Ways and Means Committee that he would like Congress to raise the debt ceiling before the August recess. He said his preference is for lawmakers to pass a clean hike that is not attached to other federal policies and that discussions about budgets should be handled separately.
Also set to expire Sept. 30 is the authorization for the Federal Aviation Administration. The agency has been operating under a plan passed in July 2016 in the absence of a multiyear rewrite of FAA law. There currently is no consensus on follow-on legislation.
In the House, the Transportation and Infrastructure Committee led by Rep. Bill Shuster (R-Pa.) continues to push a plan to create an independent not-for-profit corporation to run air traffic control. Shuster’s legislation (H.R. 4441) last year was reported from committee but never made it to the House floor. In the Senate, Commerce, Science, and Transportation Committee Chairman John Thune (R-S.D.) said there are insufficient votes to spin ATC off from the FAA but so far hasn’t moved his own bill. Meanwhile, appropriators in both chambers are opposed to moving FAA funding outside of the regular budget process.
Minus a consensus on a long-term bill, another extension of FAA programs could occur next fall. Some previous FAA extensions have been attached to government spending bills.
Similarly, funding for the Coast Guard will lapse Sept. 30 unless Congress acts by that date. However, Shuster’s committee recently approved a bill (H.R. 2518) to reauthorize the agency for two years. The measure will be ready for floor action this summer.
Senate consideration also is expected after Thune’s committee also approved a two-year reauthorization plan (S. 1129) for the Coast Guard shortly before the recess.
Also expiring on Sept. 30 is the Federal Flood Insurance Program, which is overseen by the Federal Emergency Management Agency. However, the path to reauthorizing the program is less clear.
The program has been mired in controversy over the handling of claims arising from Hurricane Sandy’s damage in 2012. Some Republicans, including New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie (R), want to turn the program over to private insurers. Congress is weighing reauthorization plans but with provisions to raise premiums paid by homeowners to make the program more solvent.
If Congress can’t agree on a plan by the deadline, FEMA may not be able to write new policies next fall.
In contrast, a bipartisan deal is advancing in the House and Senate to reauthorize the Food and Drug Administration user fee programs before they expire Sept. 30. The programs are needed for the approval of new drugs and medical devices. Without action by the deadline, the FDA may have to begin laying off staff.
In the Senate, the Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee recently approved a bipartisan bill (S. 934) to reauthorize the programs through 2022 and Chairman Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.) said he wants the Senate to take up and pass the bill before the August recess. In the House, the FDA bill (H.R. 2430) sponsored by Energy and Commerce Committee Chairman Greg Walden (R-Ore.) also advanced in subcommittee recently.
Programs covered by the Medicare Access and Children’s Health Insurance Program Reauthorization Act (MACRA) also are due to expire next fall. While Congress already took action to permanently deal with Medicare’s Sustainable Growth Rate Formula, other items will expire either on Sept. 30 or Dec. 31.
CHIP funds that help provide health coverage for 9 million low-income children are due to expire first. The National Governors Association has urged House Energy and Commerce and the Senate Finance Committee to reauthorize the program soon, because many states finalize their own budgets in June. But the matter is expected to be on hold while lawmakers work on a replacement for the Affordable Care Act.
Trump signaled in his budget that his administration wants to reauthorize the CHIP program for two years but also called for reductions in funding and caps the eligibility levels.
While CHIP renewal will be the primary focus for lawmakers, several other programs covered by MACRA also face expiration by year’s end. They include more than a dozen expiring Medicare provisions. Among them is the exception process that allows Medicare patients greater access to physical, occupational, and speech language therapy. The latter expires Dec. 31.
The debate over the Medicare extenders again will focus on budgetary offsets to cover their cost. Total cost of an extenders package is estimated to be $20 billion or more.
Lawmakers said various items are competing with many other high-profile items, such as the ACA replacement that McConnell continues to negotiate with other Republicans in order to be able to bring it to the floor this summer. Other GOP priorities include passage of a budget resolution and a defense authorization bill.
Some of the expiring programs—such as the FDA renewal—are seen as being addressed in stand-alone legislation. But congressional leaders also have relied on year-end government spending packages to enact many authorization bills.
As an example, the omnibus that closed out fiscal year 2016 spending during a December session was used to carry a package of tax extenders. It also carried authorization language for intelligence programs, a new cybersecurity plan, health-care coverage for Sept. 11 first responders, and a repeal of the oil export ban.
To contact the reporter on this story: Nancy Ognanovich in Washington at firstname.lastname@example.org
To contact the editor responsible for this story: Paul Hendrie at pHendrie@bna.com
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