Congress returns to work this week with unfinished business on spending, immigration and other crucial issues, but with an even narrower GOP majority that will make it tougher to move on President Trump’s agenda.
The House and Senate will convene Wednesday, swearing in the newly elected Democratic senator from Alabama, Doug Jones, and Minnesota’s Tina Smith to replace a fellow Democrat, Sen. Al Franken, who is resigning as the latest high-profile public figure sidelined by allegations of sexual misconduct. The change gives Republicans only a one-seat margin in the Senate.
Trump, fresh off passage of the GOP tax cuts bill, is pushing lawmakers to pivot quickly on his new year priorities of infrastructure investment and immigration, as well as his foreign policy agenda.
But another legislative victory seems far off. Republicans have struggled to hold their majority together and Congress first must tackle critical stalled agenda items that leaders punted to 2018.
In the short run, Congress must fund the government by Jan. 19 or face a potential federal shutdown when a temporary spending measure expires that was hastily approved before lawmakers recessed for the holidays.
Along with the funding deadline will be a push by Democrats — and an increasing number of Republicans — to tack on a legislative solution for the so-called Dreamers, the young immigrants brought to the United States illegally as children whose work permits and deportation protections are set to expire.
Dreamers have become a powerful political presence, with daily protests at the Capitol, putting enormous pressure on lawmakers to block the spending bill unless it includes new protections for them. Some 800,000 young people will begin to be at risk of deportation — 1,000 a day — when Trump winds down the Obama-era Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program in March.
“On DACA, there is a deal to be had,” Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), who is part of a bipartisan group of senators working on legislation, said Sunday on CBS’ “Face the Nation.” “I want to do it in January. I don’t want to wait until March.”
But House and Senate leaders first need to resolve the funding bill standoff, which hit an impasse last month as Trump and congressional leaders could not agree upon new budget levels for the remainder of fiscal 2018 or the scope of disaster aid for the unusually devastating hurricane and wildfire season.
Trump and most Republicans want to boost military spending, but Democrats are insisting on a commensurate increase in non-Defense-related accounts for other federal government operations. Recent talks at the White House did not produce an agreement.
Democrats are also pushing for more disaster funding after an $81-billion aid package — which would be the biggest ever — stalled in the Senate. They are particularly seeking better treatment for Puerto Rico, where large areas remain without electricity almost four months after Hurricane Maria.
Even as the minority in Congress, Democrats have leverage in negotiations because House Speaker Paul D. Ryan often has been unable to rally his Republican majority to approve spending bills over the objections of his party’s most conservative deficit hawks. Moreover, such measures need 60 votes for passage in the Senate.
The Republican math has been complicated by absences, notably as Arizona Sen. John McCain battles brain cancer back home. He is expected to return to Washington this month.
“Paul Ryan’s going to have to have the courage to tell the hard right they cannot run the government,” Senate Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) said last month after Jones’ election in Alabama.
Jones stunned Washington when his upstart campaign routed controversial former judge Roy Moore, the Republican nominee in the special election to replace Jeff Sessions, the state’s longtime senator who became Trump’s attorney general. Moore faced allegations of child molestation from dating teenagers when he was a county prosecutor in his 30s.
The arrival of Jones, a former federal prosecutor who won convictions of Ku Klux Klan members decades after the 1963 16th Street Baptist Church bombing, not only bolsters the Democratic minority in the Senate, 51-49, but gives the party a potential electoral path in GOP strongholds heading toward the midterm election 10 months from now.
Polls show an uptick in voter preference for Democrats, as Trump’s own low approval numbers stagnate, signaling the start of a spirited election season.
Trump has just a few short months to make progress on his legislative agenda before lawmakers will want to turn more attention to their campaigns back home as Republicans fight to retain the majority in Congress.
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, Ryan and other GOP leaders are expected to meet with Trump in coming days to map out the 2018 agenda.
Ryan, of Wisconsin, has outlined his plans for overhauling entitlements — particularly cuts to welfare programs — but McConnell has signaled he is less interested in those issues as the Senate targets other priorities, including healthcare.
McConnell has promised votes, expected this month, on legislation to soften premium hikes under the Affordable Care Act. But passage remains in doubt because other Republicans want to try again at repealing the healthcare law known as Obamacare.
Trump’s plans for a $1-trillion infrastructure package remain uncertain, limited in part because the GOP tax cut package — which permanently slashes corporate rates and temporarily reduces some individual taxes — added $1.5 trillion to the deficit, making additional government spending unlikely.
“We gave one of the biggest, largest tax cuts to the wealthy,” Rep. Joseph Crowley (D-N.Y.) said on CBS. “We’re going to be paying for this for many, many years to come.”
Rep. Mark Meadows (R-N.C.), the influential chairman of the conservative House Freedom Caucus, said he expects the House to revisit the tax bill by voting to make the individual tax breaks, which expire in 2025, permanent.
“You’ll see a vote on that in the first 30 days,” Meadows predicted.