Congress returns Tuesday to a bruising September agenda of must-do items and deepening discord with the White House, leaving the Republican majority’s hopes for advancing its once-ambitious legislative priorities all but out of reach.
Rather than emerging from the monthlong summer break with renewed legislative purpose, Republicans are approaching the weeks ahead, and its rolling crisis deadlines, with unease.
In a matter of days, Congress must approve disaster funding for Hurricane Harvey, raise the debt limit to avoid a devastating federal default and appropriate money to keep the federal government from shutting down after Sept. 30 — even as the FBI widens its investigation into Russian meddling in the 2016 election and the White House faces off with North Korea.
President Trump will meet with Republican leaders from the House and Senate on Tuesday, but he has done little to promote his party’s priorities. He instead has bashed GOP leaders in Congress, including Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) with disparaging tweets, essentially erecting new barriers to cooperation with would-be allies on Capitol Hill.
Facing a Democratic minority that is willing to lend support only for the most pressing issues, other Republican goals — repealing and replacing the Affordable Care Act, overhauling the tax code — seem increasingly lost despite the party’s hold on the House, Senate and White House.
“It’s simple,” wrote Stan Collender, a longtime congressional budget analyst. “Trump no longer has any easy — or even relatively easy — options for doing anything legislatively.”
Adding to the political challenge, Trump is expected to announce Tuesday that he will give Congress six months to pass a replacement for the Obama-era program that has granted work permits and other legal documents to 800,000 immigrants brought to the country illegally as children.
At most, Republicans hope to fend off a series of crises in coming weeks and try to keep the rifts with Trump from deepening into a full-fledged political divorce. The partnership Republicans envisioned last fall remains an awkward alliance at best.
As one Republican strategist put it, leaders in Congress approach the White House with a Cold War-style policy of “containment”: push the legislative agenda but avoid provoking the president into a Twitter tirade.
The House is expected to vote midweek on a $7.85-billion disaster aid package for victims of Hurricane Harvey. Officials consider it a down payment on what ultimately could be a $150-billion tab for the flooding across southern Texas and Louisiana.
But even disaster relief, which typically would find bipartisan support in an earlier era, is uncertain because conservative Republicans reject the White House attempt to couple the aid package with another measure to raise the debt limit.
Raising the debt limit to pay off the nation’s bills has become a dreaded vote for Republicans, who uniformly campaign on cutting spending.
Treasury Secretary Steven T. Mnuchin says the borrowing limit will be hit sooner than Sept. 30 because of emergency spending for Harvey, accelerating the need for Congress to act.
Conservatives have tried to block disaster aid packages before — refusing to vote to help Superstorm Sandy victims in 2013, for example, unless aid was offset with spending cuts elsewhere in the budget.
They now are marshaling their bloc of votes against Harvey, preferring an aid package they call "compassionate and fiscally responsible.”
“As we have stated for months, the debt ceiling should be paired with significant fiscal and structural reforms,” said Rep. Mark Walker (R-N.C.), chairman of the Republican Study Committee.
There’s little time for negotiations as the Federal Emergency Management Agency is running out of cash, forcing Republicans and Democrats into an partnership to ensure passage, likely by week’s end.
“American families deserve to know that their government will be there for them when disaster strikes, without question and without hesitation,” House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-San Francisco) said in a statement.
Even if Congress swiftly dispatches with Harvey aid, other deadlines loom, including funding to prevent a federal government shutdown at the start of the new fiscal year, Oct. 1.
Trump recently threatened to shut down the government if Congress did not agree to pay for construction of a wall along the border with Mexico, a key campaign pledge.
But Republican leaders want to avoid a repeat of 2013, when conservatives led by Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) and the House Freedom Caucus engaged in a politically damaging strategy that resulted in the 16-day government shutdown.
“You want to keep the government open,” Sen. Roy Blunt (R-Mo.) said Sunday on NBC’s "Meet the Press.” He said there is “no interest in the Republican leaders, I would think any leaders, on Capitol Hill of not keeping the government open.”
Republicans probably don't have enough support from their majority to keep federal government spending on autopilot, however, without program cuts and reforms.
That will force McConnell and House Speaker Paul D. Ryan (R-Wis.) to break with conservatives and rely on Democratic votes, potentially exposing them to criticism from right-flank voters who support Trump’s vow to push for wall money.
Congress also is likely to roll together other measures — a federal children’s healthcare program, the Federal Aviation Administration’s authorization and a federal flood insurance program — to prevent program lapses on Sept. 30, when they expire.
Lost among the many immediate concerns are the more ambitious goals Republicans once promised voters.
Efforts at a tax overhaul, a top GOP priority, are teetering, faced with the same kind of party infighting that doomed the Republican plan to end Obamacare.
Republicans are struggling to find a consensus tax plan beyond their broad blueprint of lowering corporate and individual tax rates. It would come with a hefty price tag they have yet to figure out how to pay for — or whether they should pay for it at all.
Meanwhile, any new attempt to end Obamacare must overcome a new hurdle because the Senate parliamentarian determined that special budget rules allowing for majority approval — bypassing a filibuster threat — will expire with the fiscal year at the end of September. Congress would need to pass a new budget to revive the procedure.