Lame-Duck Congress Returns to Work as Deadline Looms to Prevent Shutdown

WASHINGTON ( McClatchy Washington Bureau/TNS) -
The U.S. Capitol building.
The U.S. Capitol building.

Donald Trump hasn’t been sworn in as president yet, but he’s already having an impact on Congress.

The House of Representatives and Senate return Monday from a seven-week election recess for a brief “lame-duck” session in which victorious incumbents and election-night losers must decide how to keep the federal government funded beyond Dec. 9 to avert a partial shutdown, pay for the nation’s military and help Flint, Mich., fix its lead-tainted water system.

Trump won’t be sworn into office until Jan. 20, but some lawmakers are already taking cues from the president-elect.

Republicans were heading into the lame-duck session aiming to fund the government for a full fiscal year through September 2017 — a move that would have hindered Hillary Clinton from making budget moves.

Now, some GOP lawmakers are talking about extending the spending bill that averted a partial government shutdown through March 2017.

That would enable Trump and the new Republican-controlled House and Senate to proceed on their agenda early next year.

“I want to sit down with our president-elect and his team to talk about what they want to achieve in the lame duck, what work they want to see taken care of now, what work they would like to take up when they come in office,” House Speaker Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) said last week.

But the sentiment isn’t universal. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R- Ky) indicated last week that he’d like to see a spending bill that extends through the fiscal year.

“I would like to wrap up the business of funding the government in this fiscal year, this calendar year,” McConnell said.

Trump’s election has knocked at least two items off the to-do list: Senate action on federal Judge Merrick Garland for the Supreme Court and on the Trans-Pacific Partnership, or TPP.

Had Clinton won the presidency, Republicans may have moved forward with Garland’s nomination, fearing that Clinton would name a more liberal candidate to replace the late Justice Antonin Scalia, who died in February.

Now “what we do know is the new president will fill the vacancy, and I expect it to be handled in the way these court appointments are typically handled,” McConnell said.

As for TPP, both Republican lawmakers and the White House have signaled that the sweeping 12-nation Pacific Rim trade accord is dead for now.

Asked if it will be taken up in the lame-duck session, McConnell simply replied, “No.”

U.S. Trade Representative office spokesman Matt McAlvanah told Reuters that “it’s up to congressional leaders as to whether and when this moves forward.”

Here are some key issues and events to look for in the lame-duck session:

A Deal on Water Bills

A conference of House and Senate lawmakers will iron out differences in a water projects bill that each chamber passed. The Senate bill contains $220 million, largely to help Flint, Mich., replace its lead-contaminated water system, while the House version has $170 million to help Flint and other cities.

Negotiations to Fund the Military

A potential showdown is brewing between the White House and Republican lawmakers on the long-stalled $600 billion National Defense Authorization Act over a so-called “religious freedom” amendment. President Barack Obama and many congressional Democrats claim it would allow defense contractors to discriminate against people with immoral lifestyles by not doing business with them.

The amendment, added to the House version of the bill by Rep. Steve Russell (R-Okla.), provides exemptions to “any religious corporation, religious association, religious educational institution or religious society” that receives a federal contract.

Lawmakers in both parties have sought to get the amendment stripped out. In October, 42 Democratic and independent senators signed a letter to the House and Senate armed services committees opposing the amendment.

An Obama veto of the defense bill could hold up a 2.1 percent pay raise for U.S. troops that’s under consideration by House and Senate conferees who are negotiating differences between the two chambers on the bill.

White House press secretary Josh Earnest stopped short on whether Obama would veto it.

But he told reporters last month that “the prospect that Republicans would hold hostage funding for our national security unless the president makes it easier for companies to discriminate … is ridiculous.”

A 21st Century Cures Act

The measure would provide more than $8 billion to the National Institutes of Health, and is intended to speed up drug approvals by the Food and Drug Administration. Both Republican leaders and the White House want this passed.

The Obama administration is keenly interested in the legislation, which passed the House in 2015, because it could increase the pace of cancer research. Vice President Joe Biden has been leading the administration’s “cancer moonshot” initiative to find ways to battle the disease.

Who Will Lead?

There will be a degree of palace intrigue in the House and Senate this week as lawmakers in both parties decide on leadership teams.

The biggest changes will likely be on the Democratic side in the Senate. Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) is expected to replace the retiring Harry Reid (D-Nev.) as Senate minority leader.

There may — or may not — be a fight over who will be Schumer’s whip, the No. 2 job. Sen. Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) currently holds the position. But Patty Murray (D-Wash.) may challenge him.

On the House side, Ryan’s hold on the speaker’s gavel was thought to be in jeopardy before the presidential election when House Republicans faced the prospect of losing as many as 20 seats and Ryan distanced himself from Trump.

But with fewer GOP losses — they’ll hold at least 238 seats, down from 246 — and Ryan now speaking effusively about working with President Trump, he appears to be headed toward re-nomination as speaker. The full House votes in January.

Even the House Freedom Caucus — about 40-plus conservative Republicans who helped force out former Republican House Speaker John Boehner of Ohio and have grumbled about Ryan being “Boehner 2.0” — aren’t inclined to move against him.

“There’s not going to be to be any serious challenge Tuesday,” said Rep. Tim Huelskamp (R-Kan.), a Freedom Caucus member who’ll leave Congress next month after losing his primary in August. “The strange thing is Donald Trump pulled a lot of people across the line. Trump helped the leadership in keeping a lot of folks from losing.”