8 min read

Congress returns to a “pretty big mess”

A possible shutdown, impeachment, Ukraine aid, and other fights awaiting lawmakers as they return from summer recess.
Congress returns to a “pretty big mess”
Break’s over. (DALL-E)

Good morning! It’s Tuesday, September 5, 2023. The 2024 elections are 427 days away. If this newsletter was forwarded to you, subscribe here. If you want to contribute to support my work, donate here.

Welcome back to Wake Up To Politics. I hope you all had a great Labor Day weekend.

Now that Labor Day — the unofficial end of summer — is behind us, it’s time for lawmakers to make their annual trek back to Washington for the September session.

Washington’s need for an August recess is actually written into legislation, required by the Legislative Reorganization Act of 1970. The late Sen. Margaret Chase Smith (R-ME) is credited as one of the champions behind the August break, having warned that congressional work over the summer only leads to “confused thinking, harmful emotions, destructive tempers, unsound and unwise legislation, and ill health with the very specter of death hanging over Members of Congress.” (Indeed, the Senate historian notes, at the time in the 1950s that Smith said this, about two senators were dying per year.)

Hopefully members of Congress enjoyed their time off: they have one of the busiest legislative periods of the year waiting for them when they return. (The Senate gets back today; the House still has another week off.)

Contrary to Smith’s belief in the calming power of an August recess, there are sure to be plenty of “harmful emotions” and “destructive tempers” still flying around.

The main item on Congress’ to-do list is a full-on sprint to fund the U.S. government by September 30, when its $1.7 trillion discretionary budget is set to expire. Per the Congressional Budget and Impoundment Control Act of 1974, Congress is theoretically supposed to have passed all 12 appropriations bills — covering various buckets of government spending — by then.

In reality, however, the House has only passed one appropriations bill so far; the Senate hasn’t passed any. Considering the House will only return from recess 18 days before the deadline, you shouldn’t expect that number to grow by much.

This is not historically atypical: Congress has only managed to pass a full budget by September 30, as envisioned by the 1974 act, four times since the law’s passage.

Every other year, Congress has either passed a continuing resolution (also known as a CR) — which temporarily maintains government spending at its current levels while the new appropriations bills are hashed out — or gone into a shutdown.

It’s useful to remember what’s at stake here: in a government shutdown, all non-essential government personnel are sent home, which can mean national parks are closed, food inspections are slowed, air travel is strained, government-funded medical research grinds to a halt, and new applications for federal housing and small business loans are left unanswered.

There are also countless other government programs — less flashy, but no less important — that are set to run out of funding on September 30, either as part of the annual appropriations process or because other deadlines are often pegged to the same date. A pay raise for firefighters is set to expire; so is PEPFAR, the Bush-era AIDS-fighting program that has been credited with saving 25 million lives.

The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) — the agency that pays all 14,000 of the nation’s air traffic controllers — is also only funded through the end of the month, as are several key programs for farmers.

Somewhat reassuringly, as I noted last month, all four congressional leaders agree that a CR should be passed to extend government funding, at least for a bit, and give themselves more time to write a full budget. Kicking the can down the road is not a perfect solution, but at least it would keep the government’s doors open.

There are slight disagreements, though, about how long a CR should last. Per Punchbowl News, House Speaker Kevin McCarthy (R-CA) is expected to push a stopgap bill that would keep the government funded through November 15. McCarthy has ruled out a CR that lasts through December — even though his upper-chamber counterpart, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY), has expressed a preference for an end-of-year funding bill.

“Honestly, it’s a pretty big mess,” McConnell said last week, comments that were quickly overshadowed by his freezing at a press conference moments later.

Members of McCarthy’s right flank are gearing up to oppose any CR that maintains the current funding levels (which were set in 2022 under Democratic control of Congress), even temporarily.

They are raring for a fight, using increasingly aggressive language and signaling that McCarthy will pay if he pushes a CR through by relying on Democratic support.

“When government funding runs out on 9/30, simply extending Democrats’ current bloated COVID spending with zero policy reforms is an affirmation of the status quo,” the House Freedom Caucus tweeted this weekend. “Totally out of the question.”

In the last 24 hours, Rep. Chip Roy (R-TX) — a leading House conservative — has ominously tweeted “Let’s roll,” “Saddle up,” and “Game time.” Stephen Miller, a former Trump aide with ties to right-wing lawmakers, tweeted yesterday that “this is the most important legislative battle of the Biden presidency. And there isn’t a close second.”

The Freedom Caucus has said their members will only support a CR that includes new border restrictions and reforms that address Justice Department “weaponization,” which would have little chance of escaping the Democratic-led Senate. Other Republicans have drawn red lines of their own: Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene (R-GA) says she will only vote for a government funding package if the House opens an impeachment inquiry into President Biden.

By and large, these House conservatives are not afraid of shutting down the government to make their point. “Most of the American people won’t even miss if the government is shut down temporarily,” Rep. Bob Good (R-VA) said in July.

Several other clashes are brewing in Washington this month, many of them intersecting with the funding showdown:

1. All eyes are on McConnell, with some Senate Republicans chattering about a special conference meeting to discuss his future after his two freezing episodes. As the Senate returns this week, he will be closely watched to see if he carries on his normal routine. A key part of the Democratic budget strategy is to play McConnell and McCarthy off each other, since the Senate budget process has been much more bipartisan than the House version. But that strategy becomes harder if the diminished McConnell takes a backseat in the funding talks, like he did in the debt ceiling negotiations earlier this year.

2. The House GOP appears to be barreling towards impeachment proceedings. McCarthy confirmed on Friday that if Republicans moved forward with impeachment, the investigation would begin — following tradition — with a formal vote on the House floor. That would put his vulnerable members in a tough spot, but it’s a possible chit he could use to persuade conservatives to support government funding. Interestingly, McCarthy has also sought to make the case to the Freedom Caucus that an impeachment inquiry could only continue if the government is funded, since the House would lack the resources otherwise, another way he is dangling impeachment over his right flank to coax them to swallow a CR.

3. Further complicating the funding fight is the White House push for a $40 billion supplemental appropriations bill, which would theoretically be attached to a CR. $24 billion of the funding request would go towards Ukraine aid, $12 billion to disaster relief, and $4 billion to border security. Most lawmakers are on board with the disaster funds — FEMA’s coffers are almost drained after the recent run of hurricanes and wildfires — and the Ukraine funding has the support of most Senate Republicans, but it will have a tough time getting past the House GOP.

4. Also, as the Senate returns today, expect more focus on Sen. Tommy Tuberville’s (R-AL) blockade of military promotions. (Read my explainer here.) While the Senate was on recess, two more members of the Joint Chiefs of Staff retired, leaving three total spots open for the first time ever: the chiefs of the Army, Navy, and Marine Corps. The Army, Navy, and Air Force civilian leaders took the unusual step of writing an op-ed in this morning’s Washington Post, directly calling on Tuberville to release his hold on the military chiefs’ replacements, a move that will likely renew attention on the issue.

5. Finally, will lawmakers get anything done that they don’t absolutely have to? Maaaaaaaybe. Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-NY) has unveiled an ambitious to-do list for the September session, making clear that he is not limiting his sights only to must-pass pieces of legislation. Schumer named bipartisan bills addressing drug costs, online safety, the financial industry, rail safety, and AI as among his priorities for the work period. I’ll keep you posted on how much of that senators actually manage to get done.

More news to know.

Kim Jong Un plans to travel to Russia later this month to meet with Vladimir Putin and discuss sending weapons to aid Putin’s war on Ukraine. (Read more)

First Lady Jill Biden has tested positive for Covid. President Biden, at least for now, is testing negative. (Read more)

Some of former President Trump’s co-defendants, including his former top aide Mark Meadows, seem to be preparing to turn against him. (Read more)

Special Counsel Jack Smith is still investigating Trump’s inner circle, asking fresh questions about Sidney Powell’s role in a breach of voting equipment. (Read more)

President Biden has tapped Jack Lew, the former Obama-era Treasury Secretary and White House chief of staff, as his new ambassador to Israel. (Read more)

The federal deficit is projected to roughly double this year, skyrocketing to $2 trillion. (Read more)

The day ahead.

Election Day: Special primary elections will be held in Rhode Island’s 1st district and Utah’s 2nd district to replace two members of Congress stepping down early. In Rhode Island, a dozen Democrats are competing for the seat, but the top contenders are former state Rep. Aaron Regunberg (endorsed by Bernie Sanders and AOC) and former Biden White House aide Gabe Amo (endorsed by several fellow Biden alums).

In Utah, Republican candidates include former state Rep. Becky Edwards, former congressional staffer Celste Maloy, and RNC committeeman Bruce Hough. Edwards is a prominent Trump critic in the mold of Sen. Mitt Romney (R-UT).

In the courts: Former Trump White House aide Peter Navarro will go on trial today for two counts of contempt of Congress. Navarro is the second ex-Trump adviser to stand trial for flouting subpoenas from the House January 6th committee; the first, Steve Bannon, was convicted last year.

In the states: Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton (R), who was impeached by the Republican-controlled state House in May, will stand trial in the state Senate starting today. Paxton faces allegations of bribery and abusing his office.

At the White House: President Biden will award the Medal of Honor, the nation’s highest military honor, to Army Capt. Larry Taylor, for a daring Vietnam rescue. Vice President Harris is on her way to Indonesia.

At the Capitol: The Senate will hold a procedural vote to advance the nomination of Philip Jefferson to be vice chair of the Fed. The House is still on recess.

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