Congress will pass a short-term spending deal to fund the government through March.
The election of Donald Trump as president continues to have wide-ranging implications on Capitol Hill and in Washington.
This is not unexpected considering Trump’s unorthodox campaign. He broke from established norms, and in doing so greatly surprised many, including the Democratic Party, who incorrectly assumed they’d wield much greater power in 2017 with an increased hold in the Senate under a Hillary Clinton administration.
The general narrative that we discussed in last week’s issue still holds true: no one knows with any certainty what is happening. We’re hearing from Hill offices of every persuasion that everything is in a holding pattern until Trump gets further along with his transition.
Still, there are three important themes we’ve been watching since Congress came back into session on Monday – signals that could indicate how the next Congress will transpire: budget negotiations, leadership elections, and Trump’s selection of senior counselors and Cabinet officials.
The Lame Duck
Normally Congress would return from the campaign season with the expressed goal of crafting a government funding bill that would last throughout the entire fiscal year. Not this November.
With Trump heading into the White House with a GOP-controlled Congress, many Republicans are seeking to maximize their advantages by waiting to craft a budget deal until 2017. President Barack Obama wouldn’t be able to derail or block contentious issues if the budget deal was crafted in March.
The House Appropriations Committee announced this week it is beginning work immediately on a short-term spending bill that aligns with the current rate of funding that will last through March 31, 2017.
“We must continue to keep our federal agencies and programs open for business, while looking towards future progress on these vital Appropriations bills. While I’m disappointed that the Congress is not going to be able to complete our annual funding work this year, I am extremely hopeful that the new Congress and the new Administration will finish these bills. I am also hopeful for a renewed and vigorous ‘regular order’ on future annual funding bills, so that the damaging process of Continuing Resolutions will no longer be necessary,” wrote House Appropriations Chairman Hal Rogers on Thursday.
A short-term continuing resolution would keep the government funded at the current levels and delay the question of increased funding and policy riders until Congress opts to pass a full budget next year.
It is a political and policy win for Trump and the Republicans. They will continue to fund the government at lower levels until after Trump assumes the White House. The Republican belief is at this time it will be easier to push forward conservative or controversial riders. But with a narrow GOP majority, they’ll still need 60 votes to attach a policy rider in the Senate. Democratic support will be essential.
Many in the Republican leadership originally wanted to clear the decks for the Trump presidency by passing a budget deal in December that lasted until the end of the fiscal year. However, some House Republicans, especially the influential House Freedom Caucus, pushed for a short-term funding bill.
Also up for consideration in the lame duck is the massive defense authorization bill that governs our national security policy. It is of critical importance – and we’re on a tight deadline. Still, Congress has passed the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) every year for more than five decades so this shouldn’t present an issue.
The House and Senate passed their respective versions of the NDAA over the summer, allowing ample time for the “Big Four” – the chairmen and ranking minority members of the two Armed Services Committees – to negotiate reconciliation of the two versions. This week the Big Four reached an agreement on the overall funding level by adding $9 billion to the top line number to address funding shortfalls which had been a fundamental impediment to reaching agreement. Committee staffers have continued discussions over other key sticking points, such as women in the draft and the use of war-time finances.
The remaining points of contention center on a workplace discrimination provision that Democrats argue would make it easier to discriminate against individuals based on their gender or sexual orientation. They want to see the policy completely stripped from the NDAA before it passes.
Another consideration for the lame duck is an immense authorization and reform bill focused on water projects and safety. Neither the House nor the Senate could overcome internal turmoil and pass an agreed upon version of the critic earlier this year. But the determined committee leaders – Sen. David Vitter, Sen. Barbara Boxer and Rep. Bill Shuster – used the recess to build support for WRDA’s lame duck passage. Staff level negotiations continue to strive for agreement, but there is growing concern that resolution is unachievable before Congress adjourns. This complicates the path to adjournment because WRDA funds reparations for water contamination in Flint, Michigan, that Senate Democrats have insisted upon securing prior to adjournment.
Senate Elections – Republicans
There were few changes for Senate Republicans who are starting the next Congress with a 51-seat majority (with the potential of adding another seat in December). Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell was re-elected by his peers, as was Senate Majority Whip John Cornyn and Sen. John Thune, the Republican Conference chairman.
Sen. Cory Gardner, who was first elected in 2015, was selected as the National Republican Senatorial Campaign chairman. The 2018 election cycle is expected to be much easier for Republicans than 2016, as the GOP senators who will be up for election are all in relatively safe districts.
Senate Elections – Democrats
Incoming-Senate Democratic Leader Chuck Schumer won a new leadership post this week – and forged a compromise designed to bring together different factions of the Democratic Party.
Senate Minority Whip Dick Durbin will continue to serve as the No. 2 in Senate leadership while Sen. Patty Murray will be elevated to the No. 3 position as assistant Democratic leader. Rounding out the messaging apparatus will be Sen. Debbie Stabenow as the leader of the Democratic Policy and Communications Committee. Incoming Sen. Chris Van Hollen is considered the top contender for the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee – a thankless job whose leader will be asked to defend Democratic seats during the 2018 cycle.
Sens. Bernie Sanders, Tammy Baldwin, and Joe Manchin will also join Sens. Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota, Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts and Mark Warner of Virginia with seats at the leadership table.
It was a rather uneventful election after speculators thought that Murray may challenge Durbin for the No. 2 post. Elevating different ideological factions like Manchin – a conservative West Virginian who often votes with GOP lawmakers on energy and health issues – and Sanders – a progressive champion – shows that Schumer is looking to compromise and bring together the party after a tough election.
House Elections – Republicans
In a much-needed show of unity from House Republicans, Ryan and the entire GOP leadership team in the House was re-elected by the conference. Ryan faced some questions about his future as the top Republican before Trump’s election, but that has largely dissipated after the New York business mogul won the White House.
Ryan is looking to forge a deeper relationship with Trump – a move heralded by some of the Wisconsin Republican’s biggest critics – which likely helped him secure re-election. The big question is how Trump and Ryan will get along once real legislating occurs.
The Republican conference also re-elected Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy, Majority Whip Steve Scalise and Conference Chairwoman Cathy McMorris Rodgers for the 115th Congress. Rep. Steve Stivers was selected to lead the National Republican Conference Committee this week, as well.
House Elections – Democrats
House Democrats opted to punt their elections until after the Thanksgiving holidays. This gives each side – those who are supportive of the current leadership and those looking for new blood – time to strategize and plot.
Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi is facing a challenge to her post from Ohio Rep. Tim Ryan. A disparate group of members are clamoring for new representation and managed to get the California Democrat to reschedule elections from this week to Nov. 30.
It’s unclear what impact the delay will have, but this week Pelosi confirmed through a letter to her colleagues her intent to stand for re-election on Nov. 30. While some members are seriously angling for Pelosi to make way for new leaders, her influence over the caucus is strong. Several female lawmakers have publicly stated their desire to continue to see her leading the caucus – a level of support that solidifies Pelosi’s assertion she has the support of 2/3 of the caucus.
If Pelosi were to not remain leader – and that is a big if – it would likely cause a chaotic scenario throughout leadership where Minority Whip Steny Hoyer and Assistant Democratic Leader James Clyburn would also see their jobs in peril.
The division is driven by both the ideological direction of the party and the leadership representation and messaging. Younger, more recently elected members, and many minority members have indicated a desire to see a new generation of leaders selected, regardless of ideological affiliation. On the other hand, many New Democrats – the moderate, pro-business lawmakers – are looking for moderates who can appeal to white voters that Clinton and Democrats unexpectedly lost in 2016 to take on a larger role. A third group, made of progressives, wants to see lawmakers in the Sanders mold fill out the Democratic leadership team. These competing desires across the factions complicate the likelihood of replacing Pelosi.
If the younger and more newly-elected members wanted to unseat her, they’d have to rally behind a candidate that can appeal to the widely diverse group of House Democrats. Still, Ryan likely won’t be able to bring enough progressives and minority lawmakers to the table to win the votes to defeat her.
Pelosi also has the money advantage on her side, as she is the most successful non-presidential fundraiser in history. Her prowess has helped carry House Democrats for years and won’t be overlooked as a factor in re-electing her.
“Very organized process taking place as I decide on Cabinet and many other positions. I am the only one who knows who the finalists are!” Trump tweeted Tuesday evening.
That statement utterly defines how the Trump transition is going. He has created dueling power structures within the White House by dubbing his chief of staff, Reince Priebus, and strategy advisor, Steve Bannon, equals. There have been few other senior positions announced.
Republicans lauded Priebus’ selection, as the current RNC chairman has close ties to Capitol Hill and is a squarely establishment pick. Bannon, on the other hand, has created more controversy. The Breitbart executive is a self-proclaimed spokesperson for the alt-right, and has raised many questions about his position on social issues that continue to be fodder for critics.
On the Cabinet front, Trump’s team and other Washington speculators have floated names for secretaries but choices are expected soon.
Reports from media and others have begun floating potential names rumored to be under consideration for positions in the Trump Administration.