After watching President Donald Trump deal with a series of political controversies from afar in recent weeks, lawmakers in the House and Senate return to work on Tuesday, facing an agenda already brimming with politically explosive issues, with the need for disaster aid to help victims of Hurricane Harvey now the most urgent item on the legislative to-do list.
The House left for a five week break in late July; the Senate left town a week later, with much of the President's agenda on hold - and not much seems to have changed on that in the last month.
Here's some of what we might expect from Capitol Hill in the weeks ahead:
1. Harvey relief takes over top agenda slot. When lawmakers left Washington, D.C., it seemed likely that spending bills, increasing the debt limit, tax reform, health care and maybe even a fight over a government shutdown would top the legislative agenda for the fall. Now, the House and Senate are expected to move quickly to approve an initial aid package for those hit by Hurricane Harvey, as the floodwaters slowly recede in Texas, and the damage estimates continue to climb along the Gulf Coast. President Trump has already asked for $7.85 billion to bolster disaster relief accounts at FEMA; that is scheduled for a vote in the House on Wednesday. It's a much faster response than in 2012, when Congress didn't act for over two months on the relief bill for Hurricane Sandy, and only after an extended battle over offsetting budget cuts. As of now, a fight over budget cuts seems unlikely with Harvey, as this disaster could ultimately prove more expensive than the federal aid provided in the wake of Hurricane Katrina ($120 billion). Already, the Governor of Texas is talking about needing more than $100 billion in federal aid.
2. Debt limit could get attached to Harvey relief. This won't happen in the House vote this week, but the word is when the bill comes to the Senate, there will be a move to attach an amendment that increases the nation's debt limit, without any provisions dealing with budget cuts and/or budget savings. Before Harvey arrived, conservatives - especially members of the House Freedom Caucus - were saying they would not support any move to increase the debt limit unless there were budget savings attached to that plan. Now, that seems to have very little chance of going anywhere. "Using Harvey relief spending to pass a separate, unrelated bill would be inappropriate and send the wrong message," said Rep. Mark Meadows (R-NC), the head of the Freedom Caucus. But Meadows and other conservatives are badly outnumbered on this, as the White House and Trump Administration officials have made clear they don't want any legislative shenanigans over the debt limit, expressing that directly in a letter last Friday to Congress about the Harvey aid.
3. Lots of maneuvering still left on health care. When the Senate left town in early August, it was obvious that Republicans remained short on votes for a "skinny" GOP health care reform bill, forcing Senators back to the drawing board. Next up is a bid for a bipartisan solution to help shore up the individual and small group insurance markets under the Obama health law, and make some changes to the existing system. One Senate panel has a pair of hearings set for this week, and two more next week; the goal of Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-TN) and Sen. Patty Murray (D-WA) is to come up with at least a short term plan to improve things. Technically, Republicans have until the end of the month to be able to pass a health care plan under budget reconciliation, with no threat of a Senate filibuster - the Senate Parliamentarian last week made that ruling, which had been expected by many on Capitol Hill.
4. Tax reform still faces an uphill fight. While Republicans touted tax reform throughout the month of August, and President Trump will hit the road again on Wednesday to push that effort, I still have to keep pointing out one thing - there is no GOP tax reform bill yet. Yes, the White House and Congressional leaders have been working on a plan - we've seen some leaks, like the idea of no longer making 401(k) contributions tax free - but we still don't have a bill, with all of the many important details from Republicans. Other ideas getting trial balloons include limiting the home mortgage interest deduction, and possibly doing away with the write off for state and local taxes, which would hit a lot of urban Blue States hard on the East Coast (and which didn't really vote for Trump). The details matter in something like this. We can all say we are for "tax reform" - but those two words mean a lot of different things to people, once you start making the choices. There are real winners and real losers.
5. More talk on infrastructure - but no bill. Nothing changed in the month of August on infrastructure. President Trump and Republicans continue to talk about funneling extra money to build new roads and bridges, but no legislative proposal has been made by the White House, and Republicans in the Congress have not brought forth a bill. Mr. Trump has repeatedly said he wants a $1 trillion plan for new roads and bridges - but you can't vote on something if there isn't a bill, and most importantly, no sources of money have been identified to pay for that work. The talk has been that the White House will propose some kind of incentives for the private sector to finance the building of new roads - maybe privately owned toll roads for some states - but again, no details have been set out, and those specifics would need Congressional approval. And there may not be a bill until next year.
6. No government shutdown expected in September. With all of the troubles involving needed aid for Hurricane Harvey, the thought of a possible partial government shutdown seems less and less a possibility in Washington. It's been obvious for months that Congress would not get its budget work done by October 1, the start of the new fiscal year; lawmakers have only done that four times since the 1970's, the last times in 1994 and 1996. That means a stop-gap temporary budget will be needed to keep the government running. Chances are, it will extend funding into December, giving Congress and the President the opportunity for the seemingly yearly pre-Christmas deal on the budget to avoid a government shutdown. That's when we might get a bigger fight over money for the President's border wall.
7. No money this month for the border wall. While President Trump in August threatened a government shutdown if he didn't get money for his border wall, the consensus on Capitol Hill is that he won't press that fight before December - mainly because of the need to get money through for Hurricane Harvey disaster relief. There is also the basic issue of numbers - Mr. Trump does not have a majority of votes in either the House or the Senate for the border wall. There are votes for border fencing and other high tech measures, but not for a wall. I realize that it is popular with many Republican voters. But to get it through the House in July, GOP leaders had to use an end run with the rules to avoid a vote on the money. Why? Because it was going to lose.
8. Speaking of DACA. With the President seemingly ready to allow that program to end for younger illegal immigrants who were brought into the United States by their parents, that's one more big ticket - and politically controversial item - to add to the Congressional agenda. Again, while the idea of not deporting these people angers many in the Republican Party, there is a most likely a majority in both the House and Senate to allow that to happen. What kind of deal making might have to be involved is unclear, and given the explosive nature of the immigration debate, opening up this matter to legislation in Congress could make for some difficult political choices for lawmakers on the GOP side. But anything is possible, as there are certainly a number of Republicans on Capitol Hill who would be ready to vote to keep Dreamers from being deported.
9. Trump - an August to remember. Now what? This was an explosive August for President Trump. He took a vacation, but it was anything but a vacation. Threats on North Korea. The reaction to violence in Charlottesville, Virginia. Steve Bannon leaves the White House. Gorka is pushed out. A pardon for ex-Sheriff Joe Arpaio. Twitter jabs at leading Republicans in the Senate, whom he needs to help his agenda through the Congress. There was frankly little from the White House in August that seemed to keep Mr. Trump on message when it came to the big agenda issues of health care, tax reform, spending cuts and more. And he will start the post-Labor Day period off by making big news on DACA, which certainly will cause more political controversy.