Oct. 20 — The likelihood that Congress will be tackling a massive, multipronged omnibus this December is increasing amid Republican leaders' worries that voters will reject GOP presidential nominee Donald Trump—which could partly cause erosion of their own majorities in the Nov. 8 election.
A Trump loss to Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton could force House Speaker Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) to quickly begin assembling a large package containing spending, tax, and other provisions that could be pushed through in a lame-duck session before the 114th Congress runs out, K Street strategists said.
The urgency for wrapping up work on a huge, year-end package would be particularly acute if McConnell is faced with the loss of his Senate Republican majority or sees the election resulting in a split Senate, with a Democratic vice president providing a tie-breaking vote. Even the large majority now enjoyed by Ryan is endangered, they said.
Republican leaders will be forced to pass some type of spending package because the continuing resolution (H.R. 5325) now funding the federal government runs out on Dec. 9 and only one of the 12 regular appropriations bills for fiscal year 2017 has been finalized and sent to President Barack Obama's desk for signature. But that package could easily grow as leaders look for ways to expedite action on non-spending bills and desired tax provisions while they enjoy healthy majorities, strategists said.
Still, some said the huge “Godzilla” that lawmakers may create in the final days of the session could fall victim to a dispirited and demoralized House and Senate in the wake of the election.
“I think the real Godzilla—in a way—is the election,” said Jim Dyer, a principal at the Podesta Group. “What is hard to tell at this point is how much of a bruising the election is going to cause.”
Ryan recently told members of the House Republican Conference amid Trump's falling poll numbers that he planned to plow his resources into preserving GOP House and Senate majorities. While Ryan didn't withdraw his support for Trump, he told lawmakers his priority now is to make sure Republicans are in control of Congress to provide a check on Clinton.
McConnell, whose majority is much more precarious than Ryan's, has said little about his own support for Trump and has refused to publicly discuss the presidential campaign. He has described the Senate races to reporters as similar to a “knife fight in a phone booth,” with many of them still considered toss-ups.
The prospect that the Republican-controlled Congress will simply pass another CR or do a minimum of work in the lame duck to have more leverage when a Republican president takes office is fading. Instead, Dyer and other strategists said they envision a scenario where Ryan and McConnell try to pass as many items of business as possible while they have maximum control—beginning with a package to wrap up fiscal year 2017 appropriations work.
Both lawmakers said earlier they may prefer to do that work via two- or three-bill “minibuses” but the short legislative calendar—potentially combined with a distracting defeat—makes that difficult. After Congress returns the week of Nov. 14 for organizational meetings, it departs again for the Thanksgiving week. McConnell said that gives leaders only three weeks in December to get its legislative work done.
McConnell has tried to keep expectations for the lame duck low, saying that only appropriations and the 21st Century Cures Act, a biomedical research bill, are likely to move in December. He also said some tax extenders may be taken up.
But John Feehery, president of Quinn Gillespie Communications, said he believes an omnibus still will be the end result of the current session.
“They still have to get the spending bills done and once they are doing that they might as well go ahead and finish up other things,” said Feehery, who worked as a top aide to former House Speaker Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.).
Similar comments were made by Bill Hoagland, senior vice president of the Bipartisan Policy Center, who was director of budget and appropriations for former Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-Tenn.). Hoagland said he can envision Republican leaders working to wrap up all the bills quickly no matter whether Clinton or Trump is elected.
“I bet a Paul Ryan and a Mitch McConnell, particularly a Paul Ryan, would say we know how discombobulated Mr. Trump has been on policy so let's give a clear path for 2017 and try to get all the appropriations bills done for a full year,” Hoagland said. “If you turn it over to Mr. Trump, who knows what happens.”
Dyer, former chief of staff of the House Appropriations Committee, said the Godzilla blockbuster—“the movie you still watch even though you know how it's going to end”—could be similar to the omnibus that was passed only 10 months ago to wrap up FY 2016 work. The job starts with the 11 unfinished spending bills that are being negotiated by House and Senate aides, he said.
But Dyer said that job won't be easy, because Ryan and McConnell still haven't convinced all Republicans to support their plan to pass bills reflecting the $1.070 trillion discretionary spending cap called for in the bipartisan budget deal and abide by its defense and domestic spending totals. Besides the spending totals for the bills, he said the policy riders that may be attached will require another round of long negotiations with Democrats.
On top of that is the supplemental spending that both sides are demanding. Dyer and Feehery said a sweetener for conservatives otherwise inclined to vote against the package could be the addition of more money to address last summer's flooding in Louisiana and other states. Lawmakers from that region called the $500 million in the CR only a down payment.
That supplemental is likely to grow even larger in the aftermath of Hurricane Matthew, which caused extensive damage in Florida, Georgia, and North and South Carolina, Feehery said.
“[Sen.] Richard Burr [R-N.C.] is going to want it—win or lose,” Feehery said as the veteran lawmaker continued to struggle in his own re-election campaign.
Besides more money to deal with the Zika virus, Democrats also want aid to help Flint, Mich., deal with its drinking water crisis. Ryan pledged to include the funds in the Water Resources Development Act rewrite but it isn't impossible that WRDA and that assistance take a ride on the omnibus, Dyer said.
“WRDA is now a must-pass bill,” Dyer said.
Another incentive for Republicans and Democrats alike could be the addition of a new package of tax extenders, including the renewable energy provisions that didn’t make their way into last December’s omnibus. The measures to promote geothermal and fuel cell projects are a top priority for retiring Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.).
Other items mentioned for inclusion are: a plan to prevent a lapse of coal miners’ pension and health benefits; provisions to create a tax deferral on stock options for start-up employees; and tax breaks for some student loans. Tax breaks for Louisiana and other disaster-struck states also could make their way into an omnibus. McConnell also is said to be pushing tax breaks for the racehorse industry critical to his home state.
Hoagland said lawmakers also have to take action to head off 20 percent or greater premium increases for Medicare Part B doctor coverage.
“We went through this last year and they fixed it,” Hoagland said. “I've got to believe they've got to deal with that issue in the lame duck.”
Still, Dyer said a tax package probably won't be as large as last year, when “Division Q” of the omnibus added $800 billion to the overall price tag to bring it to the $1.8 trillion level. “Last year's bill made a lot of tax breaks permanent,” he said.
If recent history is any guide, however, McConnell and Ryan might also use a must-pass omnibus to get through other bills that could flounder on their own or take too much floor time to pass.
Last year, McConnell and Ryan convinced lawmakers to attach to the omnibus a comprehensive cybersecurity bill that had been in the works for years. Also hitching a ride were bills to reauthorize intelligence programs and address some provisions in the Affordable Care Act. Near the end of negotiations, lawmakers also agreed to stick on legislation extending a compensation fund for Sept. 11 first responders and victims.
This year, the leaders have a strikingly similar list of unfinished business and could be looking at their last opportunity for some time to pass legislation while controlling both chambers.
Besides appropriations and tax, the leaders want to complete action on the Cures Act, legislation to speed the approval of new drugs and increase medical research funding.
On top of that, once again there are unfinished reauthorization bills for intelligence and State Department programs.
Dyer didn't rule out a scenario in which the Cures Act is added to the spending package, though Feehery said he believes leaders want to pass it separately.
“They would prefer to move Cures on its own because then they'd get the most votes for that,” Feehery said.
Democrats, including House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (Calif.), are publicly pushing for an omnibus that includes all 11 remaining bills but worry about what this year's “give” will be to get a package reflecting the bipartisan budget deal. Last year, Democrats had to accept a repeal of the oil export ban to get the package they wanted.
Dyer said Republicans might use the omnibus to respond to an eleventh-hour effort by Obama to change policy or even to seek “retribution” on political enemies.
“If you want to get caught up in not just the end of the year but the end of the Obama presidency and he puts out all kinds of executive orders, then it's really a problem,” Dyer said.
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