WASHINGTON — Lawmakers returned to Washington Tuesday facing a daunting to-do list and three months left in the year to show that Republicans can actually get things done.
President Donald Trump immediately added a huge complication by rescinding immigration protections for younger immigrants and ordering Congress to come up with a fix.
The immigration issue has defeated Congress’ best efforts in the past and proven enormously divisive for the GOP. But for now there’s not even room for it on the front burner as lawmakers, just back from a five-week summer recess, face a series of more immediate tasks.
First up: Speeding relief aid to Texas and Louisiana in the wake of the Harvey storm. A first $7.9 billion installment was set for House passage on Wednesday, with leaders hoping for a big bipartisan vote to demonstrate Congress’ support for Harvey’s victims.
That will be the easy part.
GOP leaders are also wrestling with how to raise the government’s $19.9 trillion debt limit, something that must happen by month’s end, at the latest, to avoid a first-ever default on U.S. payments. The administration and GOP leaders were making plans to add the debt limit increase to the Harvey relief bill in the Senate and send it back to the House, a plan that quickly provoked conservative ire and a familiar intramural GOP dispute.
“We are grateful that in Texas the flood waters continue to recede. But here in the swamp, they continue to rise,” fumed GOP Rep. Mark Walker of North Carolina, chairman of the Republican Study Committee, referring to Washington, D.C. He made the comments in an interview Tuesday on Fox News Channel.
Despite the conservative outrage, leaders were pressing forward with the plan as a way to sweeten the perennially unpopular debt limit vote. As usual they planned to rely on Democratic votes to get it over the finish line without conservative support.
And, Congress must also approve new spending by Sept. 30 to stave off a government shutdown. The plan for dispensing with that issue was a short-term extension of existing spending levels, which would kick the funding fight into December. At that point lawmakers could add more money for Texas and Louisiana and fight it out over Trump’s call for money for a wall along on the U.S.-Mexico border.
“We have three critically important things before us right now that we need to do quickly,” Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., said as he opened the Senate session. “Pass disaster relief. Prevent a default so that those emergency resources can actually get to Americans who need them. And keep the government funded.”
There is no time to waste. Federal disaster funds run out on Friday, the Federal Emergency Management Agency is warning lawmakers. FEMA has just $1 billion remaining in its disaster accounts.
In addition to the tasks Congress must do, McConnell also made a pitch for the big issue GOP lawmakers want to do in the remainder of the year: overhaul the U.S. tax code to lower rates for businesses and individuals. After failing to make good on promises to repeal and replace Barack Obama’s health care law, Republicans feel a real sense of urgency to accomplish a tax rewrite so that they can have something to show to voters ahead of midterm elections next year where the House majority is at stake.
Top GOP House and Senate leaders met with Trump and key administration officials on the issue Tuesday afternoon at the White House.
“If we’re going to keep momentum going and allow the economy to truly take off as it should, it is vital that we reduce crushing tax burden on our companies and on our workers,” Trump said as McConnell, House Speaker Paul Ryan and others gathered with him for the meeting.
“This is more than just tax reform. This is tax cutting,” said Trump “We’re going to cut taxes, we’re going to reduce taxes, for people, for individuals, for middle income families. We’re going to reduce taxes for companies.”
Despite feuding with Trump over the summer as the president attacked him for the Senate’s failure on health care, McConnell earlier praised Trump as “very engaged on this issue.”
The White House meeting on taxes drew sniping from Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., who complained about the GOP’s plans to try to write a tax bill on a partisan basis and leave Democrats out.
And then there’s the consequential decision announced Tuesday by Attorney General Jeff Sessions to phase out former President Barack Obama’s program that protected some 800,000 immigrants brought illegally to the country as kids. The phase-out will happen in six months’ time, a period meant to give Congress a chance to come up with a solution.
White House Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders made clear the administration is not looking for a fix just for the young immigrants, known as Dreamers to advocates, but also for other aspects of the immigration system including visa programs and Trump’s border wall.
“Really big fixes and big reform,” Sanders said.
“That’s their job,” she said of Congress. “And if they can’t do it, then they need to get out of the way and let somebody else who can take on a heavy lift and get things accomplished.”
Lawmakers were already calling for presidential guidance on the issue, although leaders and aides said that, given the six-month time frame, they did not expect to turn to it immediately.
“It is important that the White House clearly outline what kind of legislation the president is willing to sign,” said Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla.