Congress Returns to DC for Fall Session Facing Major Deadlines

September 7, 2017

Lawmakers returned to Washington, D.C. this week following their month-long summer recess to face a number of pressing matters, including the urgent need to produce a Hurricane Harvey relief bill.  With the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s (FEMA) Disaster Relief Fund set to run out of money on Friday – and with a new threat, Hurricane Irma, bearing down on Florida – congressional leaders made consideration of an emergency supplemental appropriations package their number one priority.

At press time, the House and Senate were considering legislation (HR 601) that would provide over $15 billion in disaster aid for communities impacted by last week’s historic flooding.  Federal dollars would be made available through FEMA, the Department of Housing and Urban Development’s Community Development Block Grant program, and the Small Business Administration.  Lawmakers will need to approve additional funding at a later date to address both the escalating recovery costs associated with Hurricane Harvey and the expected costs from Hurricane Irma.

Although it initially appeared as though the disaster-aid package would move through Congress as a stand-alone bill, the decision was made to use the measure as a vehicle for other must-pass items.  Following a Wednesday meeting between President Trump and congressional leaders from both parties, it was announced that the bill would include, among other things, a short-term extension of the debt ceiling.  While top Republicans and Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin were seeking to suspend the debt limit for as long as an additional 18 months, President Trump ultimately agreed to side with congressional Democrats, who were pushing for a three-month extension.

In addition to the temporary debt-limit increase, the Hurricane-relief bill includes a Continuing Resolution (CR) that will fund the federal government through mid-December.  Inclusion of the short-term CR removes the prospect of a government shutdown on October 1, though sets the stage for a potential late-year showdown over the fiscal year 2018 budget.  The bill also extends the National Flood Insurance Program (NFIP) into December.

On a related matter, House Republicans this week continued their efforts aimed at advancing a long-term budget for fiscal year 2018.  Currently on the floor is a massive omnibus spending package that would provide a full year’s worth of budget authority for every federal department.  While GOP leaders likely have the votes to clear the legislation, the price tag for the bill, as currently written, exceeds the spending limits allowed under the 2011 Budget Control Act (BCA).  In order for such a package to stand, lawmakers would need to forge later this year a bipartisan agreement lifting the BCA’s spending caps.

Finally, the Trump administration announced this week that it was ending the Obama-era Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program.  Under the program, which was created by a Department of Homeland Security (DHS) memorandum in 2012, children of undocumented individuals who arrived in the United States before age 16 – and who have lived in the country since June 15, 2007 – are allowed to stay in the U.S. without the risk of deportation for a renewable two-year period.

Facing the threat of a lawsuit from 10 State attorneys general if DACA was not withdrawn by September 5, 2017, President Trump made the decision to rescind the program.  Arguing that DACA is an unconstitutional exercise of authority by the Executive Branch that would not withstand a court challenge, the administration signaled that it will continue to renew program permits over the next six months, essentially allowing Congress in the intervening time to develop a statutory framework for extending legal protections for impacted individuals.

Looking ahead, it is unclear if the closely divided Congress will be able to reach agreement on a DACA measure.  In the meantime, President Trump has indicated that he would be willing to “revisit this issue” if Congress fails to act within the allotted six-month period.

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