Unresolved issues, very little time for Senate GOP

The Senate will return to Washington next month facing a breakneck schedule with a slew of unresolved issues, including healthcare, defense and the budget. 

Republicans kicked a vote on repealing and replacing ObamaCare until after the July 4 recess, hoping to buy themselves more time to overcome the impasse between moderates and conservatives. 

But the move adds another piece of legislation to what was already expected to be a jam-packed laundry list and a tight floor schedule. 

The Senate will likely leave town for the weeklong break on Thursday after spending two days eating through floor time on a nomination vote as they negotiated behind closed doors on healthcare.

Sen. John Cornyn (Texas), the Senate’s No. 2 Republican, pushed back against suggestions that delaying healthcare would have a domino effect, arguing lawmakers can walk and chew gum at the same time. 

“I think those can occur concurrently,” he told reporters when asked what a July healthcare vote meant for raising the debt ceiling or appropriations bills.

Yet, when lawmakers return to Washington on July 10, they are scheduled to be in session for three weeks before they depart again until early September — where they will immediately need to fund the government to avoid a shutdown. 

Some Republican lawmakers have called on GOP leaders to cancel the August recess, and those calls will escalate if President Trump’s agenda stalls next month. 

Remaining on the GOP’s to-do list are major policy bills including the annual National Defense Authorization Act, which lawmakers want to pass in July so they can use the August recess to conference their version with the House.  

The bill is usually overwhelmingly bipartisan but eats up precious floor time. For example, last year’s bill — which attracted hundreds of amendments — was debated for more than a week.

If they move healthcare in July, that would also eat up days of floor time, including 20 hours of debate and a freewheeling marathon of amendment votes that typically stretches into the middle of the night. 

The potential legislative train wreck is the latest sign of a GOP agenda that is months behind schedule as Republicans struggle to score legislative victories despite controlling Congress and the White House for the first time in more than a decade.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) and Speaker Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) outlined an ambitious 200-day agenda at a retreat earlier this year that included repealing and replacing ObamaCare in April, passing a supplemental defense bill and overhauling the tax code this summer. Trump’s 200th day in office comes in early August, when Congress is scheduled to be in recess.

There are signs of concern that the delay in healthcare is threatening the prospects of tax reform. 

Four leading business groups want to move forward on a budget resolution that is necessary to pave the way for tax reform even as GOP leadership focuses on trying to wrangle the votes for repealing and replacing ObamaCare.  

“In our view, given the historic opportunity before Congress, no other reforms under consideration rise to the importance of pro-growth, comprehensive tax reform,” the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, the Business Roundtable, the National Association of Manufacturers and the National Federation of Independent Business wrote in Wednesday’s letter that was sent to congressional leaders in both parties. 

Because Republicans will use reconciliation to pass tax reform — a move that allows them to clear a bill with 51 votes — they have to pass a fiscal 2018 budget resolution before they can bring up such a measure on the Senate floor. 

But they can’t pass the budget bill before they’ve closed the door on healthcare or they will wipe out the vehicle for ObamaCare replacement, which was set up by the 2017 budget resolution. 

“I’d like to get on to the tax bill. … I don’t know what will happen. I think we ought to get this [healthcare reform] done if we can,” said Senate Finance Committee Chairman Orrin Hatch (R-Utah) when asked what the delay on repealing ObamaCare means for the rest of the schedule for the upper chamber.

There are also signs of a fight brewing over raising the debt ceiling, which lawmakers need to raise for the first time since 2014.

Congress could kick the issue to the fall, but top Republicans like Cornyn prefer to deal with the issue sooner, and Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin has urged Congress to deal with the limit before the August recess. 

Mick Mulvaney, director of the Office of Management and Budget, told reporters recently that the administration hasn’t “settled on a final way to address the debt ceiling.” As a member of the House, Mulvaney repeatedly supported tying the vote to spending cuts. 

Lawmakers had also wanted to tackle funding of the Children’s Health Insurance Program in July, according to a House GOP timeline that was leaked earlier this year. 

They could push that fight closer to the Sept. 30 deadline, but that would run up against a possible government shutdown and deadlines for reauthorizing the Federal Aviation Administration and the National Flood Insurance Program. 

There could also be late-minute fights added to the July schedule: The White House formally sent the nomination of Christopher Wray to be FBI director to the Senate, which will start the process for an eventual floor vote. 

Meanwhile, lawmakers are still haggling over how to move forward on a Russia and Iran sanctions bill that passed the Senate in a 98-2 vote earlier this month.

Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Bob Corker (R-Tenn.) said Wednesday that the legislation is being held up by “three words” and negotiations are ongoing with Senate Democrats and the House Ways and Means Committee. 

“I think, you know, time is always against you. There are entities that would certainly like to see no Russia bill occur,” Corker said. “Those who are delaying this over a couple of words, three words … are Russia’s friends.” 

The push to cancel or delay the August recess is being led by the conservative House Freedom Caucus and Sens. David Perdue (R-Ga.), Steve Daines (R-Mont.) and Dan Sullivan (R-Alaska). The effort, which has come up in previous years, has gained traction among conservative media but has not been embraced by Republican leaders.

“One thing is totally clear: There isn’t time to deal with the issues that demand immediate attention. The only appropriate response is to cancel, or heavily truncate, the annual August recess that turns the United States Capitol into a ghost town,” Perdue wrote in a Daily Signal op-ed this week. 

He added Wednesday that “change is never easy, but Americans are expecting our full and best effort. Failure is not an option.”