GOP leaders in the U.S. Senate seem ready to push ahead with a showdown procedural vote on a bill to overhaul the Obama health law, even without any assurance that they have enough votes to simply start debate, and without a final decision on what changes Senate Republicans might offer to a health care bill narrowly approved by the House in early May.
While most of the attention this week will be on the machinations involving health care legislation in the Senate, the House will take the first steps on spending bills for next year’s budget, and vote on a revised plan for new sanctions against Russia, as the House gets ready to head home for an extended summer break.
Here’s the latest from Capitol Hill:
1. Senate GOP bill on health care still in limbo. GOP leaders are still vowing to press ahead this week on a procedural vote that would begin debate on a House-passed bill to overhaul the Obama health law, but it’s not clear that Republicans have enough votes to take that first step. The absence of Sen. John McCain (R-AZ) – diagnosed last week with brain cancer – is a big deal, since the White House needs every vote possible. Some still wonder if Sen. Rand Paul (R-KY) might be convinced to at least vote to start debate – though he has made clear he is against the options that have been floated so far by top Republicans on health care legislation. As for Democrats, they’re still worried about a late rush to victory by the GOP – and the details as well.
2. Senate Parliamentarian knocks some holes in GOP plan. Because Republicans chose to use the expedited procedure known as budget reconciliation, the Senate rules play a much larger than normal role, and that has resulted in problems for a series of provisions in the bill. On Friday, the Parliamentarian said a dozen pieces of the Senate bill could be subjected to parliamentary points of order, which could only be overridden by a 60 vote super majority, something the GOP does not have. That includes provisions designed to block any federal dollars from going through the Medicaid program to Planned Parenthood. And the bill may have more holes poked in it on Monday, when the Parliamentarian goes over four other provisions.
3. Trump keeps pressing GOP on health care. While President Trump again pushed GOP Senators over the weekend to act on health care, his call for action doesn’t seem to be making Republicans in the Congress tremble at the thought of being the target of his ire – and for now, the votes aren’t there to get this Senate health care bill over the finish line. As I type this, it’s not even clear what the GOP might be voting on in the Senate as early as this week – if enough Senators decide to begin debate on the Senate floor. It’s a big week for Republican leaders in the Congress on health care – watch to see what the President says in public about the process, as well as GOP holdouts, and what he does behind the scenes to twist some arms of GOP Senators. Don’t count him out just yet.
4. House to pass Russia sanctions bill. After sitting on the measure for a few weeks, Republicans in the House will approve a plan that steps up sanctions on Iran and Russia – it was approved on a vote of 98-2 in the Senate. The House though, will add provisions dealing with North Korea, and send that back to the Senate for further action. It’s expected to be approved swiftly there. Behind the scenes, the White House has expressed frustration about the sanctions bill, because it would not allow President Trump to unilaterally roll back economic sanctions against Moscow. The vote comes as there has been more talk that the Trump Administration wants to give two compounds back to Russia, which were confiscated by the Obama Administration last December, in the first punishment for election interference in 2016.
5. House will leave town without passing all 12 funding bills. For weeks, House GOP leaders and rank-in-file lawmakers have told reporters that they were certainly going to have action on all twelve funding bills for the federal government. Reporters tried not to laugh out loud, knowing full well that was not likely. After this week, the House will be gone from Washington until Labor Day, and the plan is to jam four of the twelve funding bills into one package, and pass them in what’s known as a ‘minibus’ (the smaller version of the omnibus). Funding bills for the military, VA, energy and water programs, and the Legislative Branch (Congress) will be in that plan – but eight other bills will not voted on this week. And yet, the House will go home for five weeks. As you can see, a lot of budget work has not been done in both the House and Senate. Unfortunately, that has become standard procedure no matter which party is in charge.
6. One odd provision in the minibus. One interesting choice made by Republicans this week is that the House will vote on money to build the border wall backed by President Trump – but not the underlying bill that funds the Department of Homeland Security. A provision for $1.6 billion to start work on the wall along the border with Mexico is part of the “Make America Secure” minibus appropriations bill – but the plan to actually fund Homeland Security operations won’t be voted on by the House – until after Labor Day. You can see the House schedule – a rare five day legislative work week is scheduled this week for the House, and then lawmakers head back home for five weeks.
7. Democrats look to force votes on Trump hotels. It wouldn’t be a debate on spending bills without some nettlesome votes being forced by the minority. This week, Democrats have asked for amendments that would prohibit government workers from staying at hotels owned or operated by President Trump’s family. One amendment gives the Defense Secretary the right to waive that on national security grounds; another amendment from Rep. Don Beyer (R-VA) gives a list of 40 different Trump hotels that would be off limits for federal government official business. Just one of the votes to look forward to this week in the ‘minibus.’
8. Not on the schedule – the GOP budget blueprint. While the House Budget Committee last week was finally able to approve a budget outline for 2018, that budget resolution won’t be on the House floor this week. Why? Because it doesn’t have the votes to pass at this point in time. That means any talk you hear from GOP leaders and/or President Trump about action on tax reform needs to be taken with a grain of salt, because that budget blueprint has to be approved by both the House and Senate before any votes on can take place on a tax bill – and since the House isn’t going to be back until after Labor Day, that means tax reform remains on hold in the Congress.
9. Tax reform must be ‘budget neutral.’ One story that didn’t get much play last week because of the GOP troubles on health care is a wonky type of detail from the GOP budget resolution – but it has a big impact on tax reform plans for Republicans. At issue is a provision that says any tax bill must be budget neutral; in other words, if you cut taxes – and therefore raise the deficit by cutting revenue – then you must offset that lost revenue. That most likely would mean getting rid of tax deductions and tax breaks, a plan that sounds great in theory, but is difficult in practice to get through the Congress. Eliminate or cut back on the mortgage interest deduction? Make health care benefits through your job into taxable income? Get rid of the business interest deduction? Lots of difficult choices. If you think health care is hard, tax reform will be even more difficult.
10. Infrastructure – the missing Trump agenda item. Along with tax reform, there has been talk for months by the President, top Administration officials, and GOP lawmakers in Congress about voting for a bill to spur the construction of new roads and bridges. Mr. Trump has talked repeatedly about a $1 trillion public-private plan, but no proposal has been sent to the Congress, and none is expected until after Labor Day. Some thought the President should have started with this idea, since increased infrastructure spending is something that Democrats favor – but for a number of Republicans, that wasn’t a good idea, as they repeatedly opposed plans from the Obama Administration for more highway dollars. For now, this is going nowhere fast.