As Members return to Washington from the August recess, they face a number of pressing deadlines that will dominate the agenda for September and the months to come.
Key dates include:
September 17: Deadline for Congress to act on the Iran nuclear deal
September 24: Papal Address to Congress
September 30: Deadline for passage of Continuing Resolution and FAA reauthorization
October 29: Highway Trust Fund authorization expires
November/December: Projected deadline for Congressional action to raise or extend the debt limit
In addition to action this month in the House and Senate on the Iran deal and funding the federal government, the Senate is hoping to find time to take up cybersecurity legislation that would provide incentives to the private sector to share information with the government about cyber threats.
One of the more newsworthy Hill events in September will not have anything to do with legislation. Rather, it will be the historic address to Congress by Pope Francis, who is expected to touch on a number of topics that could make lawmakers of each party uncomfortable, particularly Republicans who may not agree with the Pope’s views on climate change.
The Senate and House plan to begin debate this week on the Iran nuclear deal, with votes in both chambers before the Sept. 17 deadline. However, the votes will only be for political show as it is now clear that the Administration has enough Democratic support to sustain a presidential veto if necessary. The only outstanding question is whether the 41 Democrats who have announced their support for the agreement will stick together and support a filibuster that would prevent a straight up-or-down vote in the Senate. The President would prefer that the resolution for disapproval never reach his desk, but it will be a major political win for the Administration regardless of whether the measure is blocked in the Senate or vetoed by the President.
October 1 is the beginning of the new fiscal year for the federal government, so without Congressional approval of a funding measure by September 30, the government will shut down. The September 30 deadline has haunted Congressional Republicans every year since Tea Party-backed Members joined their ranks, and this year will be no exception. However, 2015 marks the first time that Republicans control both the House and Senate since the Tea Party Members arrived with lofty ambitions to use the appropriations process to enact policy changes. Complicating the picture is the fact that this year not a single appropriations bill will be signed into law by the 30th. Consequently, Congress will once again be forced to pass a Continuing Resolution if lawmakers want to avoid another government shutdown.
A number of factors are preventing an easy path to enactment of a CR. On the Republican side, a bloc of lawmakers is demanding that Planned Parenthood be defunded if they are to vote for the CR. However, Senate Majority Leader McConnell has already stated that he will not let the Planned Parenthood issue force a government shutdown -- a stance that could lead to an intraparty fight with Senator Ted Cruz, who led Republicans to the shutdown in 2013.
One option being discussed by Republican leaders to decouple the Planned Parenthood issue from the CR would be to promise rank-and-file Members that Planned Parenthood funding would be brought to the House and Senate floors later as part of a reconciliation bill that would also repeal parts of Obamacare. Because a reconciliation bill cannot be filibustered, it needs only simple majorities in each house to pass and be sent to the President. This, then, would set up a scenario wherein the President would veto the bill and Democrats would defend the President and Planned Parenthood and sustain the veto.
On the other side of the aisle, Democrats are demanding negotiations over the budget caps put in place by the Budget Control Act of 2011. Earlier this summer, Senate Democrats blocked floor consideration of the FY 2016 defense appropriations bill in protest over the Republican budget resolution that allows $38 billion more for defense spending that is not subject to the caps. Until there is an agreement on either adding extra spending for nondefense programs or sticking to the caps, Democrats will block approval of individual appropriations bills and Congress will have to pass a short-term CR, which basically continues funding at current levels.
Knowing that Democratic votes are needed to pass a CR because a sizeable number of Republicans will vote “No,” Democratic leaders Pelosi and Reid will have considerable leverage in the spending debate. We will be watching to see what price they wish to extract from Speaker Boehner and Leader McConnell for their votes on the CR.
Before the Senate left for the August recess, Republicans and Democrats agreed on a path to complete cybersecurity legislation, potentially in September. We understand from floor staff that the Iran deal may be dispensed with quickly enough to allow the Senate to consider the Cybersecurity Information Sharing Act and move through the 21 amendments made in order under the bipartisan agreement. There will be Senators on both sides that oppose the bill based on privacy and other concerns, but the agreement appears likely to deliver the 60 votes needed to advance. The House passed two cybersecurity bills earlier this year, so a conference committee will be necessary to iron out the differences between the House bills and the Senate measure.
Just before the July 31 deadline to act on highway legislation, the Senate cleared a bill that reauthorizes the highway trust fund for six years but provides only enough money to cover three years. The House did not like the Senate measure, so a compromise was reached reauthorizing the fund for three months, until October 29.
We understand that the House Transportation Committee is looking to mark up a bill the week of September 14. At this point, we expect the length of the reauthorization to be between four and six years. Transportation Chairman Bill Shuster is currently working with Ways and Means Chairman Paul Ryan on the offsets for the measure, with Ryan clearly eyeing the deemed repatriation provisions in an international tax reform package as the best way to offset the cost. Senate Leader McConnell and Finance Chairman Hatch, however, have made clear that they do not support this approach, so it remains to be seen how a long-term highway bill will be funded.
The highway bill may also provide a forum for continued debate on whether to reauthorize the Export-Import Bank, whose charter expired June 30. During Senate consideration of the highway bill, an amendment was approved reauthorizing Ex-Im. While no decisions have been made by Speaker Boehner on Ex-Im, it is a matter we are closely watching.
The hottest energy issue percolating in Congress is an effort to lift the ban on exports of U.S. crude oil that was imposed in the early 1970s following the Arab oil embargo. House Republicans look ready to move on this issue, with markup sessions possible the weeks of September 7 and 14 in subcommittee and then in the full Energy and Commerce Committee. It is not clear yet whether the oil export measure will move to the floor this month by itself or as part of Committee Chairman Upton’s Architecture of Abundance package.
Other Fall Items
FAA: The legislation that allows the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) to operate expires at the end of September. House Transportation Chairman Shuster was ready to release his bill in July but held back at the request of leadership. With no action yet in either chamber, it looks as though Congress will pass a short-term FAA reauthorization bill before Sept. 30.
Debt Limit: In another challenge to Speaker Boehner and Leader McConnell, the always controversial matter of raising or extending the debt limit will need to be addressed later this fall or early winter. Treasury has been using extraordinary measures to continue to finance the government since March 16, when the most recent suspension of the debt ceiling expired. Because of a number of unpredictable variables, such as government receipts from month to month, it is impossible to predict exactly how long the extraordinary measures will last, but it looks like action will be needed sometime between late October and December. It is not clear how lawmakers will address the debt ceiling issue this time around, whether it will be a clean bill as the White House wants or whether Republicans will demand something in return for their votes to suspend or raise the debt limit. We only know that Republican leaders have vowed that the government will not default.
Tax Extenders: In mid-July, the Senate Finance Committee approved legislation providing for a two-year extension of various tax breaks. Since the tax breaks expired at the end of 2014, the two-year extension applies to 2015 and 2016. Meanwhile, the House Ways and Means Committee and the full House have passed various bills that would permanently extend certain provisions, such as the R&D tax credit. Last year, the fate of the tax extenders bill was not decided until late December. This year, there was a pledge to move sooner rather than later, but there is no timetable yet for future action.
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