The House and Senate are entering their respective final runs before the November midterm elections, following a two-day break for Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year — even though the possibility of Hurricane Florence entering the Washington, D.C. metropolitan area cut short an already shortened week. The pressing items of business are funding the government and the pending Senate confirmation of Brett Kavanaugh to the United States Supreme Court. But several lower-profile issues remain as well.
The Senate convened briefly on Wednesday, Sept. 12, and confirmed the nomination of Charles Rettig to head the Internal Revenue Service. During the third week of September, the Senate is expected to turn to legislation aimed at combating the nation’s opioid epidemic. That bill, H.R. 6, is expected to clear the Senate with a prenegotiated amendment sponsored by Sen. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., the chairman of the Senate Health, Education, Labor & Pensions Committee. But it is expected that this opioids legislation will still need some work in a conference with the House before it is ready for final enactment.
The Senate is also expected to take up and pass S.2554, the Patient Right to Know Drug Prices Act, which would prohibit the use of gag clauses in Affordable Care Act plans and employer-sponsored insurance. The reach of this prohibition in the bill might be extended by amendment while it is before the full Senate, to also cover self-insured group health plans.
Much of the near-term attention in Congress in the remaining weeks of this final work period will be focused on both the Kavanaugh nomination, currently proceeding through the Senate Judiciary Committee, and on negotiations in conference over multiple packages of appropriations bills — known as “minibuses” — to fund the government over the next fiscal year. The first minibus conference report (covering military construction, Veterans Affairs, energy and water, and legislative branch appropriations bills that fund the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and the Capitol complex), has emerged from conference and was passed by the Senate before it adjourned for the week. House action appears likely in the coming days.
Two other minibus packages (Interior, transportation, agriculture and financial services; and defense and labor, Health & Human Services and education, respectively), have proceeded into conferences to work out the differences between the House and Senate versions of each. The first of these two minibuses may prove more difficult to navigate through the bicameral conference, because members of the two bodies differ over a number of controversial riders.
Time is running short on these and other appropriations bills, such as the bill that funds the U.S.Department of Homeland Security, which has been slowed by controversy over President Donald Trump’s demand that the bill’s border security funding be augmented to reflect his plan to build a wall on the southern border. With the midterm election looming, whatever appropriations bills do not get done in the next few weeks will likely end up in a continuing resolution funding those portions of the government, likely to be passed sometime in early December.
Depending partly on the timing for resolution of these appropriations bills, Congress seems likely to attempt to finish work on three other bills: a bill reauthorizing the Federal Aviation Administration; a bill reauthorizing the Water Resources Development Act; and a new farm bill.
In particular, WRDA legislation appears most likely to move ahead. On Sept. 10, Senate Environment and Public Works Committee chairman John Barrasso, R-Wyo., and ranking member Tom Carper, D-Del., House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee chairman Bill Shuster, R-Pa., and ranking member Peter DeFazio, D-Ore., and House Energy and Commerce Committee chairman Greg Walden, R-Ore., and ranking member Frank Pallone, D-N.J., announced that they have come to an agreement on a compromise bill.
While not a conference report since the full Senate has not voted on its version, the WRDA compromise bill seems likely to start in the House, with floor action possible soon. Notably — given the tragedy relating to water quality in Flint, Michigan — the bill would include $4.4 billion for the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency‘s Drinking Water State Revolving Fund program, to improve state and locality drinking water infrastructure.
Meanwhile, the farm bill is being negotiated in a 56-person conference between the House and Senate, which formally kicked off on Sept. 5. Potential approval of the bill could give senators and House members from agriculture-heavy states and districts an important deliverable for voters in a number of key contested November races. But politically difficult issues lie ahead for the bill — such as controversial House provisions that would place restrictions on the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or food stamps.
The Kavanaugh nomination is expected to clear the Senate Judiciary Committee on a party line vote very soon. The nomination should proceed to the full Senate in late September, or early October at the latest. A few senators from each party remain undecided or at least unannounced. Yet the nomination appears to be on secure footing, with Democrats unable to mount a filibuster of the nomination under the revised interpretation of the Senate’s cloture rule that requires only majority support for shutting off debate. After Kavanaugh is confirmed, it appears likely that the Senate will soon thereafter wind down its work until after the election.
For its part, the House is also reconvening later this week, and in addition to possibly considering the WRDA compromise, Republican leadership is planning to vote on several bills reported by the House Ways & Means Committee, and other lower profile legislation, under suspension of its rules. But much attention will be on the House Ways & Means Committee chairman Kevin Brady’s, R-Tex., intended committee markup of Tax Reform 2.0, which — among other items — would make permanent certain changes to the tax code in the 2017 tax reform law, affecting individual taxpayers.
The House Republican Conference is not united on an approach relating to this legislation, with a range of perspectives from leadership and vulnerable incumbents. So it is unclear when, or if, the bill might reach the House floor. Regardless of whether the bill passes the House, since it would be subject to a 60-vote threshold supermajority in the closely divided Senate, the legislation does not appear to have a path forward.
This article was originally published in Law360.