As the weeklong July 4 recess approaches, members of Congress are pursuing a busy legislative schedule, focused on the fiscal year 2019 National Defense Authorization Act, some lesser FY 2019 appropriations bills, reform of the Committee on Foreign Investment in the United States, immigration reform and border security, the farm bill authorization (set to lapse in September) and the Water Resources Development Act.
The Senate continues to focus much of its floor time confirming executive branch and judicial nominees in an environment where the Democratic minority can no longer defeat these nominations without majority help. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., has said his goal is “to confirm all the circuit and district court judges that come out of committee this calendar year,” and his recent decision to cancel all but the first week of the cherished month-long August recess is partly so that the Senate may continue with these confirmations. McConnell last week expressed his satisfaction with the 115th Congress’s successes implementing a conservative agenda, and in particular there have been a high number of confirmations of President Donald Trump’s circuit court judge nominees, even as the closely divided Senate has struggled to find paths forward for significant legislation.
But the Senate’s drastic reduction of the August recess is also connected to the midterm election Senate map, with ten Democratic senators up for reelection in November in states that Trump carried just 18 months ago. These Senate Democratic incumbents would otherwise have spent considerable time at home campaigning throughout the month of August.
However, the decision to keep the body in Washington for most of August is not just relevant to these Democratic incumbents; it also could affect Sen. Dean Heller, R-Nev. Heller also has a tough reelection battle ahead, with last Tuesday’s Nevada primary having set up a general election battle with Rep. Jacky Rosen, D-Nev., in a state that Hillary Clinton carried in 2016.
The Senate is working its way through the National Defense Authorization Act, an annual bill that provides senators with ample opportunity to try to legislate on matters connected directly to, and sometimes only tangibly related to, national security issues. As is the normal practice, senators have filed a whole host of amendments during consideration of the bill, and several are especially important and difficult and will need to be worked out as that bill progresses.
One such critical issue that may well take an important step towards resolution as a result of the NDAA process is the potential for reforming the law that authorizes the Committee on Foreign Investment in the United States. Senators supportive of CFIUS reform are seeking to tie that effort to the popular must-pass NDAA bill. Meanwhile, the House has worked on a freestanding CFIUS/export control reform bill that it would take into a potential NDAA conference with the Senate.
The House bill has been slowed by differences, jurisdictional and otherwise, between the House Financial Services Committee and the House Armed Services Committee, but these differences may prove not to be insurmountable. In an environment where China continues its efforts to acquire the closely held assets of many companies in the United States, the overall prospects for CFIUS reform appear to be good.
The House is also expected to once again take up its version of the farm bill later this month. A similar House farm bill package failed on the floor back in May, but House Republican leadership appears inclined to make another attempt at passage of the popular measure in an election year. A Senate Agriculture Committee-passed bipartisan Senate farm bill could reach the Senate floor later this month as well.
The House has been grappling with what to do about immigration reform and border security legislation, with a group of recalcitrant rank-and-file moderate House Republicans breaking ranks with both House Republican leadership and the more conservative nucleus of the conference to push a discharge petition that would force votes on a solution for the “Dreamers.” These young people, born abroad and brought to this country without documents as children, were granted deferred action, allowing them to stay in the country, in an Obama-era policy change initiated by then-Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano.
President Trump announced an end to deferred action for this set of immigrants, potentially subjecting them to adverse legal consequences and even deportation, and effectively dividing Republicans over what to do about them. The House Republican conference has tried to work out its internal disagreements by setting up a bifurcated process for a more restrictionist measure stewarded by retiring House Judiciary Committee Chairman Bob Goodlatte, R-Va., and possibly a separate Republican-negotiated compromise measure that would appeal to multiple House Republican factions. Such a House floor trajectory would probably put an end to the rank-and-file discharge effort led by Rep. Jeff Denham, D-Calif., which would constitute a top-down reassertion of leadership over the process.
This month is also seeing further activity on FY 2019 appropriations bills in the House and Senate. Newly installed Senate Appropriations Committee Chairman Richard Shelby, R-Ala., who took over the gavel after the retirement of Sen. Thad Cochran, R-Miss., has pledged a return to “regular order” in the appropriations process following the two-year bipartisan budget agreement reached earlier this year.
As the full Senate kicks off its activity on appropriations bills, it may simultaneously consider at least a procedural vote on a measure that would rescind this omnibus appropriations compromise legislation, following pointed comments from President Trump about his desire to reopen that compromise. It is expected that the Senate would defeat a procedural measure to move to a recissions package. The House narrowly passed a recissions bill 210-206.
Beyond a possible Senate rescissions vote, Chairman Shelby is preparing a “minibus” package, likely of three of the 12 appropriations bill, for consideration by the full Senate later in June. That minibus would logically consist of the military construction/Department of Veterans Affairs appropriations bill, the energy and water appropriations bill and the legislative branch appropriations bill, since those three bills just passed the House as a package.
It is unclear how many of the 12 appropriations bills can be finalized by each chamber before the end of the fiscal year on Sept. 30, upon which a short-term continuing resolution will be necessary to fund the government into the lame duck session after the November midterms. Alternatively, the Congress could once again flirt with a dramatic shutdown of the government.
The Senate Democratic Steering Committee has scheduled a packed panel for a hearing on Wednesday, June 20, entitled “Free and Fair Elections,” highlighted by former chairman of the Democratic National Committee and former Governor of Virginia Terry McAuliffe.
The Senate might also take up sometime later this month or after the July 4 recess measures extending or reauthorizing the Water Resources Development Act, flood insurance and the law authorizing the Federal Aviation Administration, all three of which are set to expire in the coming months.
This article was originally published in Law360.