Congress Set to Return to D.C.

September 4, 2019

August recess is coming to a close, and Congress will be back in session next week with a long end-of-year legislative agenda. In addition to several hot-button issues such as background checks and Hurricane Dorian relief, Congress has several must-pass bills on its agenda, as well.

When Congress returns on Sept. 9, they will have a mere 13 Congressional working days to pass a dozen spending bills that will provide updated funding levels and prevent a government shutdown at the end of the month. Recognizing the challenges of this, House leaders are discussing the possibility of a stopgap fix that would extend current funding levels until late November or early December, giving them more time, while keeping the government open.

Though the House has passed 10 of its 12 annual funding bills, the Senate has not passed any as they waited for congressional leaders and President Donald Trump to strike a two-year budget deal. The Senate Appropriations Committee is expected to start voting on legislation on Sept. 12, and Senate Republicans are hopeful they can clear a sizable portion of government funding measures this month by combining spending bills for the Pentagon and for the Departments of Labor, Education, and Health and Human Services, and potentially energy and water development funding as well. But even if the Senate is able to pass legislation before Oct. 1, they would still need to work out a broader agreement with the House.

Upon return from the long summer recess, leaders of both the House and Senate Armed Services committees will launch their negotiations on a final version of the National Defense Authorization Act (H.R. 2500/S. 1790). Republicans and Democrats in both chambers want to pass the bill before the Oct. 1 start of the new 2020 fiscal year. A two-year budget deal that boosts defense spending will help smooth the way, but lawmakers still will have to bridge several major policy differences. For instance, House Democrats are pushing to limit the president’s authority to go to war with Iran, block military support in Yemen’s civil war and overturn the Pentagon’s more restrictive transgender troop policy — provisions some Republicans oppose.

Trade discussions will also consume lawmakers during the month of September. Further discussions between the U.S. and China on an agreement to end the bilateral trade war are expected to continue this month, but no specific date has been announced on when a deal may be reached. A 15 percent tariff on about $110 billion of Chinese imports took effect Sept. 1, with duties planned on more goods at the end of the year. Trump’s current 25 percent duty on about $250 billion worth of Chinese goods is expected to rise to 30 percent on Oct. 1.

Further, the USMCA agreement will be back in the spotlight after Congress returns. Trump’s chances of winning approval of the USMCA before the end of the year could hinge on closed-door talks House Democrats and USTR Robert Lighthizer held in August over several contentious issues. And finally, the Export-Import Bank is once again up for reauthorization come Sept. 30.

Lawmakers may begin discussing a group of temporary tax provisions known as extenders that have been expired for well over a year and a half now, and with still more set to lapse at the end of this year, unless Congress acts. However, it remains to be seen if an extenders package could get attached to a broader budget or spending agreement. The Senate also has yet to dispatch with House-passed retirement security legislation that would also roll back a tax increase from Republicans’ tax overhaul on the benefits given to survivors of soldiers who died in the line of duty.

In the Senate, Senate Environment and Public Works Chairman John Barrasso (R-Wyo.) is hoping to bring his surface transportation bill to the Senate floor this year. In July, the committee unanimously approved a bipartisan funding bill for $287 billion for road infrastructure projects. Just before the August recess, Sen. Barrasso sounded optimistic about Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell’s (R-Ky.) willingness to carve out floor time for the bill. But with the fiscal year expiring at the end of September, that goal may end up slipping. The House has yet to introduce a draft, and the current law doesn’t expire until September 2020.

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