Congress has a full plate of unresolved items left over from late last year. But only the Senate will be in Washington this week, returning Wednesday, while the House won't be back until next week. Lawmakers still have several government spending issues to tackle, in addition to one bill to stabilize health care costs in the individual market and another to reauthorize a key intelligence law.
Lawmakers left Capitol Hill before Christmas after Republicans pushed through a tax overhaul package that President Trump signed into law, but they punted negotiations over deals to lift spending limits and 2018 government funding into January.
When the House returns Jan. 8, Congress will only have two weeks to figure out both budget issues before the Jan. 19 deadline. Lawmakers extended 2017-level funding for the government twice in December to buy more time to develop a longer-term plan.
Spending ceilings set by the Budget Control Act of 2011 will take effect unless Congress raises them, as they did twice over the last four years. In 2013, Rep. Paul Ryan, R-Wisconsin, then the chairman of the House Budget Committee, reached a deal with his Senate counterpart, Sen. Patty Murray, D-Washington, to boost spending caps for two years. Once that deal expired, Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, brokered a deal with Democrats and the White House in 2015 to lift spending caps for two more years. That agreement expired in September.
Republicans and Democrats have been aiming to strike a two-year budget deal that would lift spending caps by $200 billion, a source familiar with negotiations recently said. Democrats want equal increases to the military and domestic nondefense programs, while Republicans are more focused on boosting Pentagon spending. The 2011 law set caps of $549 billion for defense spending and $516 billion for domestic programs. Congress recently passed a defense policy bill that called for considerably more -- $626 billion in defense spending, plus nearly $66 billion for the Pentagon's overseas contingency operations (OCO) account that funds military operations against the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS).
The White House legislative director, Marc Short, and Office of Management and Budget Director Mick Mulvaney are meeting with the four top congressional leaders on Wednesday.
"Marc Short and Mick Mulvaney look forward to meeting on the Hill tomorrow to discuss budget caps with Congressional leaders Ryan, McConnell, Schumer and Pelosi," Walters said Tuesday.
2018 spending package
If and when the budget deal is approved, Congress can craft an omnibus spending package to fund the government through at least the end of the fiscal year, which ends Sept. 30. Republicans may want to push back the expiration date into later in the year so that it removes the possibility of a government shutdown a month before the midterm elections in early November.
"Democrats are focused on fulfilling the many long-overdue, bipartisan priorities facing the American people," House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-California, told her Democratic colleagues in a letter Tuesday. "In these talks, Leader Schumer and I will continue to insist on parity in the CAPS. We are fighting for funding for the opioid epidemic, veterans, pensions, disaster relief, National Institutes of Health, Children's Health Insurance Program and community health centers. We are firmly committed to swiftly passing the DREAM Act, which we know would pass with bipartisan support if brought to the Floor."
Democrats have wanted to attach a legislative fix to spending legislation for so-called Dreamers and the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program that the Trump administration halted last fall. President Trump has called on Congress to provide a legislative solution to the program by March 5. His administration announced in early September that it was ending DACA, the 2012 program that has deferred deportations for more than 780,000 people who came to the U.S. illegally as children, allowing Dreamers to go to school and work openly with two-year renewable permits. Immigrants whose DACA status is set to expire by March 5, 2018 were required to reapply for their renewals by last October. Those Dreamers who whose DACA protection expires on March 6, 2018 and who have not already submitted a renewal application will be subject to deportation as of that date.
Mr. Trump, however, made clear last week that he would only agree to a DACA fix under one condition -- if Congress approves funding for his proposed wall along the U.S.-Mexico border. The president tweeted Friday: "The Democrats have been told, and fully understand, that there can be no DACA without the desperately needed WALL at the Southern Border and an END to the horrible Chain Migration & ridiculous Lottery System of Immigration etc." He added: "We must protect our Country at all cost!"
Prototypes for the border wall were completed in October and U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) said at the time that it would soon begin testing them. The administration may be preparing for the wall, but Congress has not allocated funding for it. Funding has been repeatedly blocked by Democrats whose votes Republicans need for spending bills in the Senate. Spending legislation requires 60 votes to advance in the upper chamber and Republicans only have 52 members.
If the president fails to deliver on the border wall, that could hurt Republican candidates in November. On the other hand, if Dreamers don't receive further protections, that could also alienate Hispanic voters and hurt GOP election chances as well.
Health insurance stabilization
Republicans repealed Obamacare's individual mandate in their tax legislation, but the law is still in place. To stabilize health care markets, several senators have been pushing a bipartisan proposal from Sens. Lamar Alexander, R-Tennessee, and Sen. Patty Murray, D-Washington to extend Obamacare's cost-sharing reduction (CSR) payments for the next two years and eliminate the question about whether making the payments is legal. The White House announced last year that because there was no congressional appropriation for the payments -- which help keep insurance affordable for Americans buying in the individual marketplace -- it would stop making the payments.
Congress must reauthorize the the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA), which contains Section 702 -- a key intelligence tool that has helped the government unravel terrorist plots and cyber attacks. The law was last renewed in 2012, before Edward Snowden leaked National Security Agency (NSA) documents. Lawmakers have been debating where a reauthorization should fit on the spectrum between broad surveillance powers and the protection of individuals' privacy.