5 Big Questions Congress Must Address This Fall

5 Big Questions Congress Must Address This Fall

REUTERS/Larry Downing

Summer is unofficially over, meaning the action in Washington is just heating up. Congress has a lot on its plate this month — and for the rest of the year.

Most pressingly, it faces critical deadlines for raising the debt ceiling and funding the government to prevent a partial shutdown on October 1. It will also be looking to provide disaster relief funding for Hurricane Harvey — a House vote is set for Wednesday on a first installment of $7.85 billion — and President Trump just laid DACA, the program that provided legal protections to about 800,000 people who came to the U.S. illegally as children, on their docket as well. Oh, and then there’s tax reform, which the Trump administration is still pushing to get done this year.

1. Will Harvey Relief Help Avert a Debt Ceiling Crisis?

The Trump administration has asked for a $7.85 billion “down payment” for emergency Harvey relief funding through the end of the fiscal year on September 30, with $7.4 billion of that money slated to go to FEMA’s Disaster Relief Fund and $450 million for the Small Business Administration’s disaster loan program. The House is scheduled to vote on the initial aid package Wednesday, and will likely vote on an administration request for an additional $6.7 billion later this month.

Will Harvey aid be used to grease the path for more contentious must-pass legislation, like an increase in the debt ceiling?

Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin said Sunday that he and the president want to tie the debt ceiling to Harvey aid, and Sen. John Cornyn said Tuesday that was the plan. House conservatives may not play along, though. “Our obligation is to assist those impacted by this great flood, but it’s past time the swamp waters in DC begin receding as well,” Rep. Mark Walker, chairman of the Republican Study Committee, said Monday.

In hopes of warding off a backlash from the Right, some Republicans are hoping President Trump speaks up. “GOP leaders are hoping Trump will come out and ask publicly for a debt limit-Harvey bill, giving them cover with unhappy members of the party’s right flank,” Politico’s Burgess Everett and Rachel Bade report. “Conservative complaints about a debt ceiling lift that doesn’t cut spending are only likely to crescendo in the week ahead and could cause serious problems — particularly because other more moderate Republicans are also unhappy with the strategy.”

2. How Nasty Will the Next Budget Fight Be?

The White House has backed off of President Trump’s threat to shut down the government if a funding bill failed to include money for the border wall with Mexico. The conservative House Freedom Caucus has also said that it won’t demand funding for the wall, at least not right now. This makes a government shutdown at the end of September much less likely, and boosts the odds that House Speaker Paul Ryan’s  plan to pass a short-term “continuing resolution” to fund the government will move forward.

House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy on Tuesday laid out the likely course of events: “We have to deal with Harvey, we have the debt ceiling, we have a continuing resolution which will be just about a three-month continuing resolution, so you will deal with the wall a little later in the year.”

But the fiscal fight Congress is avoiding this month may just come back around in December, and with a vengeance. By the end of the year, Congress will likely have dealt with many of the issues facing legislators right now, including raising the debt ceiling and providing funds for Hurricane Harvey relief. That will leave the government budget as the main focus of contention as the holidays roll around, and some members of Congress — and possibly President Trump — could welcome the opportunity to join the fight. With big issues like the debt ceiling no longer in play, the budget battle could begin again with renewed energy.

3. Will Congress Get to Tax Reform, or Just Tax Cuts?

President Trump is meeting with the "Big Six" tax reform negotiators Tuesday afternoon, and they have plenty of issues to resolve, including just how low to cut corporate tax rates in their proposal, whether or how their cuts will be paid for and whether they'll be able to make some of their "reform" package permanent. But with so much else going on, can Congress and the administration really get anything done on taxes in 2017?

 4. Can Congress Forge a Bipartisan Deal to Stabilize Individual Insurance Markets?

After the GOP failed to repeal or replace Obamacare, lawmakers must now figure out how to further stabilize the individual insurance market and keep premiums from climbing, even as the Trump administration urges another attempt to scrap the ACA and slashes ad spending meant to promote enrollment through the law’s exchanges.

Sens. Lamar Alexander and Patty Murray have four bipartisan hearings planned this week and next for the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee. They aim to pass a narrow, stopgap stabilization package this month, Politico reported, and they don’t have much time. Insurers have until September 27 to finalize their plans to participate in the exchanges.

States have taken the lead in working to bring stability to specific markets and draw insurers to counties that had been bare. At least six states are planning to set up their own reinsurance programs — read about Minnesota’s success here — reducing the likelihood that a similar nationwide plan favored by Dems will be included in the measure drafted by Congress.

“That leaves one major unresolved issue: guaranteeing funding for Obamacare subsidies that lower out-of-pocket costs,” Politico’s Adam Cancryn reported Tuesday. “Without assurances the funding will continue, insurers and state regulators warn, the delicate Obamacare markets they’ve held together so far could promptly fall apart.”

"We've got a few weeks to come to consensus in this seven-year-old partisan stalemate, and if we don't break it, some people will be priced out and badly hurt," Alexander said.

5. What Else Does Congress Have to Get Done Soon?

Here's a partial list:

  • Reauthorize the National Flood Insurance program (expires September 30)
  • Reauthorize the Federal Aviation Administration (expires September 30)
  • Renew funding for the Children's Health Insurance Program (expires September 30)
  • Pass the National Defense Authorization Act
  • Deal with DACA

This article has been updated to correct the amount of SBA relief funding from $450 billion to $450 million.