With less than a month before Christmas – and ten days until funding runs out for a chunk of the federal government – Congressional leaders are racing to cut deals on everything from general spending to farm policy, reforms to the criminal justice system, a package of temporary tax breaks, and a showdown over the high profile issue of how much to spend on security along the southern border.
“We’re trying to get the President the money he would like for the wall, that’s part of the year-end spending discussion,” said Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell on Tuesday, as reporters pressed for details on how the House and Senate would cut a deal on a border wall which the President routinely promised during the 2016 campaign would be paid for by Mexico.
“That’s one of the many things we’ve got to wrap up here at the end of the year,” McConnell added.
While the goal would be to finish work by the next funding deadline of December 7 – that’s a week from this Friday – it’s still possible that the lame duck session could leak into the next week, inching closer to the Christmas break.
Here’s a rundown of some of the major issues left for lawmakers to tackle in the next few weeks:
1. Shutdown showdown over border wall? President Trump has long made clear that he isn’t happy with getting $1.6 billion that both parties again agreed to in funding to help build a wall along the border with Mexico. Instead, the President wants $5 billion. “The $1.6 billion for border security negotiated by Democrats and Republicans is our position,” said Senate Democratic Leader Charles Schumer. So, this is a game of legislative chicken. If neither side blinks, then part of the federal government would have a lapse in funding on December 7, which would lead to a partial shutdown. As you can see from this pair of tweets, both parties are trying to pin the blame for any funding lapse on the other.
2. What needs to be funded by December 7. Congress is supposed to have finshed action on spending for the next fiscal year by October 1. That has not happened since 1994 and 1996, as both parties are guilty of being unable to get their work done on time. This year, the House and Senate approved funding for the military, Congress, Energy and Water programs, military construction and the VA, and a bill that covers labor, health and education spending. Still to be finished: spending for Homeland Security, Agriculture, Commerce/Justice/Science, and other agencies. 75 percent of the government has already been funded, but the seven remaining bills still fund an awful lot of activities, and some high profile items – like money for the border wall, NASA, the Justice Department, and more.
3. Future not clear for tax extenders. Republicans on Monday night released the text of a 297 page bill commonly known as a ‘tax extenders’ package, which is often used as a year-end Legislative Christmas Tree of sorts, to extend tax breaks for certain groups like the horse racing industry, auto racing tracks, and more. You can read my Twitter thread here for more on the details. When the bill text was released Senate Democrats said it had not been cleared with them. When I reported that, a House Republican spokesman emailed me to say that I was wrong – that Democrats had been on board. But that wasn’t what it sounded like a few hours later from Senate Democrats. This may pass, but it’s not a slam dunk right now.
4. Crops still in the field on the Farm Bill. Negotiations on a major farm policy bill have been in limbo for weeks, basically waiting until the calendar turns into December, and lawmakers are forced to make last-minute deals (that’s why so much gets done between Thanksgiving and Christmas generally). Republicans had wanted to use this bill to make major reforms in the food stamps program (also known as SNAP), but Democrats had made clear for months that big changes were never going to make it into law. Now the question is what will the GOP produce, and will more conservative Republicans balk at a lack of changes on SNAP.
5. Trump pushes Criminal Justice Reform plan. President Trump has been trying to convince the Senate to go along with a House-passed plan to make changes to the criminal justice system, but it’s run into some opposition from Republicans. First, here’s the text of the bill, which is aimed at shortening federal sentences for thousands of people currently in jail for drug-related crimes. But some more conservative Republicans in the Senate don’t like the plan, worried it goes easy on criminals. But since this has the support of President Trump – look for him to try to make it part of any broader deal on what legislation gets through the Congress in the month of December.
6. Transition to the 116th Congress. In the midst of all this work, newly elected House members are in town to complete their orientation, culminating this Friday with the drawing for offices, as the hallways of the three House office buildings will be filled with furniture, file cabinets, and trash bins for weeks. Those lame ducks who are not returning do not have an office to go to – instead, most will have work space for maybe one or two staffers in a general area in one office building, as workers paint and prepare their offices for a new occupant in January. Some lawmakers who are leaving don’t show up for many votes, making it harder to figure out what’s going to happen in the final days. It’s an odd transition time every two years, especially in a year like 2018, when over 90 new members of the House will be taking office – more than one of every five lawmakers.