Senate’s ‘Must Dos’ Mounting in Run-Up to August Recess

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By Nancy Ognanovich

The collapse of Senate Republicans’ plans to pass a rewrite of the Affordable Care Act by the Independence Day recess threatens to upend the careful plans of Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) to use July to promote President Donald Trump’s priorities and head off crises when federal programs expire next fall.

McConnell’s strategy for the 15 work days leading up to the August recess call for the Senate to begin tackling budget matters, including a measure to raise the federal debt limit, and push through a Department of Defense bill with large spending increases for the Pentagon, Republican senators and aides said. At the same time, McConnell also wants to use the work period to ensure the timely renewal of many expiring federal programs, they said. But those plans were seen in jeopardy when McConnell announced he has too few votes to pass the health care rewrite by the July Fourth break.

Senate Majority Whip John Cornyn (R-Texas), McConnell’s top lieutenant, said GOP leaders were intent on an all-out effort to pass the ACA replacement bill by week’s end to clear the decks for other priorities they want to take up and pass in July. He said the outlook will be harder with health care still on the agenda.

“It doesn’t get any better, it doesn’t get any easier,” Cornyn said. “We’ve got other things we need to do, like the defense authorization bill. We need to get ready to pass another budget so we can get reconciliation instructions for tax reform.”

Cornyn also said in a series of interviews that McConnell doesn’t want to wait until the Sept. 30 deadline to renew key programs is staring lawmakers in the face. On July’s agenda, he said, are bills to reauthorize the Federal Aviation Administration, the Coast Guard, Food and Drug Administration programs, and more.

Without action to renew expiring statutes many governmental services could lapse—from air traffic control operations to the government’s approval of new drugs. Those program expirations are coming up on the same day that funding for the federal government runs out.

Cornyn said McConnell also may seek to start bicameral, bipartisan talks aimed at reaching another deal to ease the Budget Control Act’s spending caps. Those talks are seen as the key to work on the fiscal 2018 appropriations bill this fall.

“We just don’t have time to waste,” Cornyn said.

Health-Care Plan Collapses

McConnell had planned to use all the days leading up to the July Fourth recess to push through the ACA replacement plan that was the subject of weeks of Republicans-only negotiations. Democrats aren’t supporting the rewrite, but the leader is using the 2017 budget reconciliation instructions to get it through the chamber with only 51 votes. But McConnell announced after a closed-door meeting with Republicans June 27 that he still doesn’t have enough support within his own caucus to pass the bill. He said discussions will continue over the coming days, aimed at building more support for the proposal.

Even if the measure eventually passes the Senate, it isn’t clear whether House Republicans would simply take up the Senate bill and approve it or insist on a conference to reconcile House and Senate bills. The latter could again force Senate leaders to use floor time in July to finalize the measure.

McConnell’s calendar gives him 15 working days when senators return July 10 from recess. Lawmakers depart again by July 29 and won’t come back until Sept. 5. The Senate then will have 17 days to pass bills ensuring government funding and extending programs such as those at the FAA and for flood insurance coverage.

“July’s a problem,” Senate Republican Conference Chairman John Thune (R-S.D.) said in an interview. “It’s hard to say if we get health care this month, you could have a health-care conference. You could have a 2018 budget resolution. I don’t know when we have to deal with the debt limit but it might be sometime in that work period.”

A top Republican aide said the health-care debate boils down to 20 hours of work—if completed by the break. In contrast, he said tackling a 2018 budget resolution in order to use it to push through a tax code overhaul will take much longer and even suggested the matter could get pushed to the fall.

“That’s essentially a week’s worth of floor work—that’s a 50-hour exercise,” the aide said. “If the spending goes over the Budget Control Act [caps] it’s subject to a point of order. It doesn’t need to happen now, because as you know, we’ve done budget resolutions as late as January of the next year.”

Cornyn said that the Senate will take up its own budget rather than adopt a House blueprint also now being finalized. But he offered no specifics on timing. Instead, Cornyn and other Republicans said it’s a priority for McConnell to deal with the need to raise the federal debt limit before the August recess. He said Republicans may attempt to soon start negotiations with Democrats on the debt limit issue as well as raising the BCA caps to accommodate more spending on both sides of the federal ledger. Under current law, both defense and non-defense programs are slated for cuts in FY 2018.

“I’m hopeful we can negotiate spending cap levels and maybe a debt limit before we leave rather than wait until after we come back after the August recess,” Cornyn said.

Those negotiations would be aimed at once again easing the BCA caps as was done two previous times. In those cases, McConnell helped broker two-year bipartisan budget agreements that enabled appropriators to finalize their spending bills and avoid funding crises.

The GOP aide said there could be conversations about whether a debt limit increase is attached to a stopgap government funding bill that moves in September. But for now, that’s not the plan, he said.

“The Senate leadership has discussed acting on a debt limit in July and so I think we’re not talking about adding it to a [continuing resolution] right now,” he said. “We’re talking about it generating independently here next month.”

Three Weeks in July

But the calendar and the list Cornyn and others offered suggest McConnell isn’t reserving much of July’s floor time to consider FY 2018 appropriations bills as he did in the past two years. With a late start, the Senate Appropriations Committee chaired by Sen. Thad Cochran (R-Miss.) will only be moving the first of their 12 bills to markup after the July Fourth break. Lawmakers in both parties said they expect McConnell and House Speaker Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) will have to push a new continuing resolution through the Capitol in September to prevent a lapse in government monies.

The senior aide said McConnell instructed the committee recently to begin markups next month even though the budget process still hasn’t provided a new discretionary spending allocation for appropriators to follow. Without that, they are said to be working with the totals reflected in the recently enacted omnibus appropriations package for FY 2017.

“I think McConnell and appropriators hope to mark up all because you need something against which to negotiate if—by some wild chance— you aren’t able to get to the floor,” he said.

McConnell invested 10 weeks in floor time last year for appropriations bills only to see Democrats block the measures, he said.

“So once burned, twice shy,” he said. “He’s going to be examining carefully his options going forward and he’s going to make decisions that work best at the time. There’s still time in the fall, we still have to do our bills.”

But while McConnell hasn’t laid out plans to bring up individual bills, the aide suggested the GOP leader may be willing to schedule votes on minibus bill packages. Republican leaders in both chambers have discussed “bundling” bills to expedite their passage.

“I think the leader’s door is not closed to minibuses,” the aide said. “The combination and the timing, I think, are subjects of conversation, but he’s definitely not slamming the door.”

McCain’s Way

In contrast, both Thune, chairman of the Commerce, Science, and Transportation Committee, and Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), chairman of the Armed Services Committee, have received signals from McConnell to be ready to come to the floor in July with their own authorization bills.

McCain said he has a commitment from McConnell for floor time in the last several days before the August recess. He said he’s confident the health-care measure will pass and the leadership will be able to pursue other priorities, such as the DOD authorization bill to be marked up the week of June 26.

McCain said McConnell’s plan is to bring up the DOD bill right before the recess in order to put pressure on lawmakers to limit their amendments and keep the debate short.

“It will be the last week I think,” McCain said. “We always try to bump it up against the recess. Otherwise it stretches out for two weeks.”

Debate on the DOD bill will tie directly into the budget negotiations as McCain and other defense hawks are critics of budget sequestration and want to sharply increase Pentagon spending. McCain is pushing to increase the Pentagon’s budget to $640 billion or more—far in excess of what the BCA currently allows. It also is much more than Trump’s own Pentagon budget.

Democrats don’t oppose extra defense spending but can be expected to fight those increases if they come at the cost of non-defense programs.

“The president’s budget and McCain’s aspirations and getting to one of those numbers is hard beyond the BCA, without massive amounts of [off-budget] Overseas Contingency Operations money or some other trick shot,” said Senate Minority Whip Dick Durbin (D-Ill.), who is also the ranking member of the Senate Appropriations Defense Subcommittee. “And most Democrats feel there has to be more parity between defense and non-defense.”

Meanwhile, Thune said he’s ready to mark up a new FAA reauthorization bill at the Commerce, Science, and Transportation Committee he leads in order to also have the bill ready for the floor in July. Thune, who is pushing a traditional rewrite of FAA programs, is competing with House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee Chairman Bill Shuster (R-Pa.), who is moving a bill that turns air traffic control over to a quasi-government corporation. Thune is working to quickly move his measure through committee and on the floor.

The Senate GOP leadership is sympathetic to Thune’s goals, especially with FAA programs now set to lapse at the end of September.

“I think what’s going to happen there is that they’re going to try to have [the process] as restrictive as possible,” the senior aide said. “But in order to get to a longer term bill you’re still going to have to do an [FAA] extension first.”

Statutory Deadlines

Cornyn also listed reauthorization of the Coast Guard, another item ready in Thune’s committee, as a must item for Republicans to tackle. But a higher priority in the short term could be passing a bill to reauthorize the Food and Drug Administration to collect user fees under agreements with makers of pharmaceuticals and medical devices.

The Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee, led by Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.), already reported an FDA reauthorization bill, as did the House counterpart, but the measure hasn’t come to the floor yet. If the agreements aren’t reauthorized before the August break, the FDA will be forced to send 60-day layoff notices to more than 5,000 employees alerting them that they might lose their jobs after the agency’s current authorization expires.

“You have to do them in July because if you don’t then things begin to turn off even before Sept. 30,” the aide said.

Senate leaders also are waiting to see what the Banking, Housing, and Urban Affairs Committee, whose chairman is Sen. Mike Crapo (R-Idaho), moves to reauthorize the National Flood Insurance Program, which also expires at the end of September. Crapo is said to be working on a plan but hasn’t released it yet.

Cochran, the appropriations panel chairman, recently released a six-year flood reauthorization bill. Others have proposed 10-year measures.

But if a flood reauthorization bill can’t move soon, a short-term extension of that program also could be prepared for September.

“There could be conversations about whether it hitches a ride on a CR” that Cochran helps write, the aide said.

Negotiating Nominations

Besides the legislative to-do list, McConnell has another list to advance: Trump’s nominees for Cabinet agencies that are finally beginning to be reported from committee and readied for floor action.

After approving Trump’s Cabinet, Senate work on other nominees lagged amid White House delays in announcing and officially transmitting the president’s choices. The administration has fallen behind its predecessors in the number of nominees named and confirmed.

However, the list of those available on the Senate’s Executive Calendar recently has grown from only a handful to almost 30 nominees. They include a number of Trump’s choices to serve as deputies at the agencies.

McConnell is expected to try to confirm many of the nominees during July. But he also may attempt to negotiate an agreement with Senate Minority Leader Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) to move a package of nominees before the August break as has been done in previous years, another aide said. Such a package might move in “wrap up” before the Senate departs for August, the aide said.

Cornyn said it’s “a perfectly human impulse” to want to put off decisions.

“But we really have a lot to do,” he said.

To contact the reporter on this story: Nancy Ognanovich in Washington at nognanovich@bna.com

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Paul Hendrie at phendrie@bna.com

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