Congress returns Tuesday and with it, your POPVOX updates. We’ve missed you!
It’s been an August Recess for the history books. We’ve pulled together our notes on the big events that impact the tone and agenda of the coming weeks and months. Because Congress was away, much of the focus in August was on the actions of the president and Congressional reactions. So here, as briefly as possible, in chronological order, is what you need to know as Congress heads into the Fall.
Failed health vote
In the final days of July, the Senate failed to pass a “skinny repeal” of Obamacare, with Sens. John McCain [R, AZ], Susan Collins [R, ME] and Sen. Lisa Murkowski [R, AK] casting the deciding votes. Sen. McCain delivered a fiery speech after the vote, calling for a return to “regular order.” He reminded senators that they “do not answer to the president [but to] the American people, a sentiment he reiterated in an op-ed last week.
Tense relations between Capitol Hill and the White House
Senators lamenting zero-sum partisanship and increasingly strained relations with President Trump were early themes for August: Senator Jeff Flake released a book that was both a call to principles and a stinging rebuke of the president. It followed on the heels of a feud between the president and Majority Leader McConnell that was growing increasingly public.
And then came Charlottesville – the “Unite the Right” rally held ostensibly to protest removal of a Confederate statue that was actually intended as a display of force and numbers by white nationalists and neo-Nazi groups. One counter-protester, Heather Heyer, was killed and many others injured when a car drove into the crowd. Two state troopers, Lieutenant H. Jay Cullen and Trooper Berke M. M. Bates, were killed in a helicopter that crashed while patrolling the rally.
President’s Charlottesville response
The violence and the protest was strongly condemned by public figures across the country, which made President Trump’s initial response, appearing to equate white supremacists and counter-protestors, a stark contrast. His now-famous “many sides” comment in a Saturday press conference was followed by a sober Monday prepared statement condemning racism, that was then overshadowed by a Tuesday Trump Tower press conference in which he reiterated and emphasized blame on “both sides” (see all presidential statements). Backlash followed from the business community, leading to the disbandment of two CEO councils and from many Republicans, with notably strong statements from Sens. Tim Scott [R, SC], Lindsey Graham [R, SC] and Bob Corker [R, TN].
New strategy for Afghanistan
On August 21, President Trump announced a new approach to the war in Afghanistan, with an increase in troop levels and an outcomes-focused strategy. Many on Capitol Hill welcomed the announcement while saying the plan should come before Congress for approval. Sen. Rand Paul [R, KY], however, made it clear in an op-ed that he does not support the troop increase.
Phoenix speech and Arpaio pardon
The president traveled to Phoenix for an official speech with a campaign-rally format that focused primarily on a rehash and defense of his Charlottesville comments, disparaging the media, and taking digs at home state senators (without naming them) Flake [R, AZ] and McCain [R, AZ]. Trump also suggested that he would support a government shutdown if Congress did not provide funds to begin his promised border wall. The president also foreshadowed a pardon, which soon followed, of controversial former Arizona sheriff, Joe Arpaio, who was convicted of criminal contempt for violating a court order requiring him to halt actions targeting immigrants that the court found violated their Constitutional rights.
Hurricane Harvey, which ravaged southeast Texas and set records for rainfall in the continental U.S., has changed the political debate. With a major population center under water and hundreds of thousands displaced, threats to shut down the government over spending priorities or engage in brinksmanship with the debt ceiling are growing quiet. The Trump administration response is generally well received, as was a weekend visit to Houston, TX and Lake Charles, Louisiana by the president and first lady, along with cabinet secretaries. President Trump has asked Congress for a $7.9 billion down payment on Harvey relief.
Last week, President Trump kicked off the administration’s efforts to pass tax reform, laying out four principles: (1) Simplify by eliminating loopholes, (2) Lower corporate tax rate, (3) Tax relief for middle class families, including credits for child care, (4) Repatriation of foreign income by American corporations. He followed up with an op-ed in a Milwaukee newspaper. Freedom Caucus chairman Meadows said it would be hard for caucus to support tax reform that doesn’t lower corporate tax rate below 20% that would be retroactive to beginning of 2017. Some nonprofits are lobbying for a universal tax credit (available whether you itemize or not).
North Korea escalation
In early August, the president responded to reports that North Korea had produced a miniaturized nuclear warhead that can be affixed to missiles, by saying that future threats “will be met with fire and the fury like the world has never seen.” The tone continued to ratchet up throughout August, with North Korea specifically mentioning the U.S. territory of Guam in a threat, launching an intercontinental test missile that overflew Japan, and, on September 3, testing what appears to be a thermonuclear weapon. After meeting with the president immediately following the test, Defense Secretary James Mattis said: “Any threat to the United States or its territories, including Guam or our allies will be met with a massive military response — a response both effective and overwhelming.”
National Security agenda
North Korea will top the National Security agenda as Congress returns. The Senate will take up the National Defense Authorization Act, which authorizes $700 billion in Pentagon spending and contains provisions on military policy. This Wednesday, the House and Senate will receive classified, members-only briefings from Defense Secretary James Mattis, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs Gen. Joe Dunford and Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats.
On Tuesday, Attorney General Sessions announced that the administration will end the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program protecting “DREAMers” from deportation. The policy change was announced with a six-month delay, giving Congress time to act with a legislative solution, which many are contemplating. Several bills have already been introduced on the topic the BRIDGE Act (H.R. 496 / S. 128), the RAC Act (H.R. 1468) and the Dream Act of 2017 (H.R 3440 / S. 1615).
The administration faced a deadline from ten states that threatened to sue over the program if not rescinded by September 5 (which became nine last week, as Tennessee pulled out of the effort).
With the return of Congress comes a renewed focus on the investigations into Russian interference in the 2016 election. Over recess we learned that a grand jury has been empaneled and that the investigation has expanded to include financial ties with the Trump Organization, including a memorandum of understanding to pursue a Trump Tower Moscow deal that the president authorized during the 2016 campaign. We also learned that Special Counsel Mueller is working with New York Attorney General Schneiderman, who could potentially bring state charges that would not be pardonable by the president. Mueller is also working with the IRS’ special unit that specializes in financial crimes like money laundering. In Congress, investigations continue in the House and Senate, with many Trump associates scheduled to testify in the coming weeks
With that background of serious issues and tensions, Congress returns staring down several deadlines:
Debt Ceiling – it was reached on March 3, but “extraordinary measures” extended the time before action required to somewhere around September 29 (possibly sooner given Harvey expenditures)
FAA Authorization – expires September 30
Children’s Health Insurance Plan (CHIP) – expires September 30
National Flood Insurance Program – expires September 30
In addition, federal spending authority expires September 30th, and Congress is expected to pass a temporary spending measure (perhaps extending until December). Failure to reach agreement would result in a government shutdown.
This week in Congress
Congress will vote on these measures this week. Members are also expected to take up funding for Hurricane Harvey response, possibly including an increase to the debt ceiling.
Current law requires that banks and other financial institutions report to the Treasury any financial transaction that involves more than $10,000 in cash. People who circumvent that requirement by conducting a series of smaller transactions instead of a single transaction are subject to both civil and criminal penalties. H.R. 5523 would prohibit the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) from seizing money from people who circumvent those reporting requirements unless the agency proves that the money was connected to a crime. In addition, the bill would exempt from federal income tax any interest that the Treasury pays on seized funds that are returned.
H.R. 3388 would clarify the federal role in regulating vehicles that can drive without a person controlling the vehicle. Those vehicles are defined in the bill as Highly Automated Vehicles (HAVs). The bill would require the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHSTA) to complete several rulemakings, establish an advisory council on HAVs, and create a publicly available database about manufacturers that receive exemptions from current law. The bill would require vehicle manufacturers to comply with cybersecurity plans and would make manufacturers that fail to comply subject to civil penalties.
According to the committee release:
“[T]he bill provides $31.4 billion, $824 million below the fiscal year 2017 enacted level and $4.3 billion above the President’s budget request. These funds are targeted to important investments in the nation’s natural resources, including $3.4 billion for the Department of the Interior and U.S. Forest Service to prevent and combat devastating wildfires. The legislation also contains several policy provisions to rein in harmful and unnecessary regulations at the EPA and other agencies.”
"Legislation Related to Disaster Supplemental Appropriations"