President Donald Trump's legislative agenda in Congress is in a familiar spot as the Congress gets ready for a summer break, as a major bill to overhaul the Obama health law remains in limbo, and GOP lawmakers are still behind schedule on a variety of budget and spending measures, which will further delay Congressional action on tax reform legislation backed by the White House as well.
Here is the latest on the Trump agenda from Capitol Hill:
1. Health care remains in Congressional limbo. After the stunning setback early Friday morning on the floor of the U.S. Senate, GOP efforts to overhaul the Obama health law were at their weakest point of 2017. Speaker Paul Ryan publicly urged Senate Republicans not to give up the effort to make changes in Obamacare, but it wasn't clear what type of plan could get 50 votes in the Senate. Senators are supposed to work the next two weeks in Washington, so there is always some chance of a legislative miracle, but it's a long shot at this point on the number one agenda item for President Trump and Republicans in the Congress. Can they get anything done? Or will this turn out to be a big missed opportunity for the GOP in 2017? Remember, they only need one more vote in the Senate.
2. House behind schedule on funding bills. As members of the House left for a five week summer break on Friday, they left behind a lot of unfinished work, especially on the budget. Of the dozen spending bills that fund the operations of the federal government, only four had been completed, and those were lumped together into one 'minibus' measure. The other eight await action - after Labor Day. GOP lawmakers constantly told reporters that they were doing a great job in acting on those bills - arguing that things are typically slow for Congress in the first year of a new President - but records show that just isn't true. For example, in 2001, the first year that George W. Bush was in office, the House passed 9 spending bills before the August break. In 2009, the first year for Barack Obama, the House passed all 12 funding bills by August. Oh, and did I mention that all that funding work is supposed to be done by October 1? Hard to do that when you are gone for more than half of that time.
3. Also not completed, a 2018 budget blueprint. It is supposed to be done by April 15, but the Republican budget resolution for next year remains on hold. Yes, it was approved by the House Budget Committee last week, but it wasn't brought up on the House floor for a reason - there aren't enough votes to get it approved. Why is this important? Because the budget resolution sets the groundwork for Congress to use 'budget reconciliation' for a major tax reform bill. But you can't do tax reform that way if you can't muster a bare majority in both the House and Senate for that measure. So, when you hear a lot of talk from House Republicans about plans for tax reform in coming weeks, remember, it needs a budget resolution to be approved first.
4. Republicans start shift to emphasis on tax reform. With health care legislation in trouble, Republicans in the House did all they could this week to highlight plans to forge a tax reform bill in the fall - but as mentioned above, they can't start work on it under budget reconciliation until the GOP gets a budget resolution approved in the Congress. And since the House is now out until September 5 - that's five weeks where it's not going to happen, and then later in September, Congress will be consumed with a possible government shutdown, and the need to raise the nation's debt limit. On Thursday, Republicans released their tax reform "principles" - it sounds nice, but gets us no closer to an actual bill, which isn't expected until the fall. You know me - don't show us bullet points - give us a bill with real legislative text.
5. Border wall money saved by the rules. While Republicans were talking a lot about the approval of $1.6 billion to build more wall and fencing along the border with Mexico, that money may have survived in the full House only because GOP leaders made sure there couldn't be a direct vote on the money. Instead of allowing possible amendments to strike out the money, the funding was put into a 'minibus' funding bill by what's known as a 'self-executing rule' - that made sure there was no vote for or against the border wall money. Why was that necessary? Because there was concern among Republicans that the border wall funding would be rejected by the full House.
6. 60 votes. 60 votes. 60 votes. 60 votes. People got tired of me bringing up the 60 vote requirement in the Senate over the last few years - but it's very important. If you don't have 60 votes, you can't do much in the Senate without compromise. For example, Democrats had 60 votes when they passed the basic infrastructure of the Obama health law. They had 60 votes (59 Democrats plus one Republican) when they passed the Dodd-Frank package of Wall Street reforms. So, if you are going to repeal laws like that, you will need - 60 votes - to fully repeal big laws in the Senate. The last time the GOP had 60 votes in the Senate was 1908, before the direct election of Senators. President Trump was making noise about that 60 vote requirement again in recent days, but don't look for Senate Republicans to change the rules anytime soon.
7. The schedule tells a story. If you want the President's legislative agenda to succeed, then you have to do the work in the halls of Congress. If you want to do the work, then you have to have the House and Senate in session. The House has eight spending bills to finish - they could do that over the next few weeks - but they won't be in legislative session. The House could vote on a budget resolution - but lawmakers won't be on Capitol Hill. Congress must act to raise the debt ceiling. By October 1, a temporary spending bill must be approved. None of that can be touched until after Labor Day. Here is the legislative session schedule for the House of Representatives.
8. The Senate works for two extra weeks. Unlike the House, the Senate is going to stick around into August, but other than maybe a defense policy bill, there is no major legislation expected on the floor. Instead, Republicans will keep pushing ahead on nominations that have been slow walked by Democrats. One nominee who seems likely to be voted on in the next two weeks is Christopher Wray, the President's pick for FBI Director. But Republican Senators have also been making very clear to the President that they don't want to see him clutter up August by pushing out Attorney General Jeff Sessions. The chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee used Twitter to tell Mr. Trump to back off.
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