WASHINGTON — When Congress returns to work Tuesday, lawmakers will have a lot to do to keep the government running and not much time to do it — a difficult task transformed by the urgency of quickly approving funds for Harvey recovery.
House and Senate lawmakers already faced the daunting tasks of raising the debt ceiling to allow more federal borrowing to pay bills by Sept. 29 and approving a spending bill to fund the federal government after the end of this fiscal year on Sept. 30.
But on Sunday, Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin urged Congress to vote to increase the debt limit at the same time it approves the $7.9 billion disaster aid package proposed by President Donald Trump and his administration — as soon as this week.
“The president and I believe that it should be tied to the Harvey funding. Our first priority is to make sure that the state gets money,” Mnuchin said on “Fox News Sunday.” “It is critical, and to do that, we need to make sure we raise the debt limit.”
That adds pressure to lawmakers when they come back Tuesday, amid North Korea’s hydrogen bomb testing and Trump’s promised decision on whether to end the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program that allows work permits and reprieves from deportation for noncitizens brought to the United States as children.
Also crammed onto the schedule in September are moves to stabilize the individual health insurance market, reauthorizations of agencies and programs, presidential nominations and the beginning of legislation to cut and possibly reform federal income taxes.
The House has just 12 working days scheduled, and the Senate 15, in September.
The four Republican and Democratic leaders of the Senate and House will meet with Trump on Wednesday at the White House to discuss how to go forward.
Democratic leaders on Sunday urged Republicans to work with them — and to not repeat the decision to try to pass the fiscal legislation with only votes from the Republican majority. Republican leaders haven’t said how they will proceed.
“It’s not going to be easy,” said Rep. Peter King (R-Seaford), a veteran congressman who has engaged in legislative battles over debt ceilings, federal spending, government shut downs and the $61 billion for superstorm Sandy just five years ago.
Here is a rundown of the key items on Congress’ to-do list.
The destructive storm Harvey is forcing Congress to rethink its priorities as it faces a pending $7.9 billion proposed down payment on an undetermined final aid package that could exceed $100 billion.
The short-term funding is expected to pass with bipartisan support, but battles could emerge over what is in the final aid package. “I don’t think we want to make the same mistakes that they made with Sandy, which is to ask for way more than than you knew yet what you needed,” Sen. Roy Blunt (R-Mo.) said on NBC’s “Meet the Press.”
In the past, both parties have used a refusal to raise the debt ceiling as a way to protest fiscal policy, resulting in government shut downs. But Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) and House Speaker Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) said last month that there is no chance that Congress will not raise the borrowing limit. Still, political fights are still possible.
On Sept. 30, the federal government will run out of money as its new fiscal year begins. Ryan said Congress might pass a temporary spending bill to push the deadline to December, to give lawmakers time to fight for priorities and work out details. Democrats expect this to happen.
Agency and program reauthorization
On Sept. 30, congressional authorization expires for the National Defense Authorization Act, the Federal Aviation Authority, Food and Drug Administration user fees, the National Flood Insurance Program and the Children’s Health Insurance Program.
Without it, those programs can’t be funded. But Congress likely will delay action on some programs, such as CHIP.
Insurance Market Stabilization
Many lawmakers have said Congress needs to take steps to stabilize the market for individual health insurance policies after several insurers stopped offering plans and the Senate failed to pass an Obamacare repeal.
Democrats propose to continue making cost-sharing payments to insurers. Republicans would like to ease the required benefits in the plans insurers offer. This week, a Senate committee will hold hearings to hear the views of state insurance commissioners.