Politics Weigh Heavy on Lame Duck Session

Lauren French

Budget, trade, and politics are high on the agenda for lame duck.


It’s been a long, strange summer and fall since lawmakers jetted off for the conventions in July. They’ve hardly been seen in D.C. since.

But our elected officials will return in mid-November for one of the most fascinating quirks of our legislative process: the lame duck session. It’s when lawmakers – including those returning to Washington in January, those who are retiring, and even those who were defeated – pass major legislative bills before year end.

It’s always a dramatic stage where egos, priorities, and deadlines clash. This year will be no different.

There are only a few issues lawmakers must tackle before the end of the year, including passing a budget to fund the government through 2017. Nearly everything else is up in the air – even important legislative priorities such as a critical water resources act and an energy bill.

How the senatorial contests and presidential race turn out will influence which political feathers get plucked during the lame duck session. The only predictable outcome of the four weeks following the election and before the new congress begins is that it will be unpredictable. If Secretary of State Hillary Clinton wins the White House but Senate Republicans maintain the majority, it will produce different balances of power than if Senate Democrats secure the 51 seats needed to take control of the upper chamber. A White House controlled by New York business mogul Donald Trump would similarly produce a new legislative scenario.

FiveThirtyEight gives Clinton a more than an 80 percent chance of winning the White House. The Senate is still too close to call as both parties have a dozen races still in play.

RealClearPolitics, which averages national and state polls, has Clinton up by an average of 7.5 percentage points in recent days after a FOX News poll released this week gave her a 7-point advantage, and a Bloomberg survey had the former secretary of state posting a 9-point lead. Polls taken after Wednesday night’s debate indicate Clinton bested Trump, which could produce another spike in her poll numbers in the coming days.

The House is highly unlikely to switch from a Republican-controlled chamber to a Democratic one, but comments made by Trump over the last two weeks have tilted several Republican-leaning House races to the left. Republicans could lose close to 10 seats this cycle. A larger loss for the GOP would further change the lame duck dynamics as it would likely force Speaker Paul Ryan to rely on Democratic votes to push forward controversial spending, funding, or other bills.

If the GOP establishment numbers shrink, the folks in the safe-seat Freedom Caucus could see their position strengthen, as moderates and establishment Republicans would likely be the ones voted out.

Regardless of the outcome, there is going to be immense pressure to quickly resolve the spending battle for the current fiscal year. During their brief stint in Washington in September, lawmakers punted the funding bill into December and are now faced with the need to pass a longer-term government funding deal. This remains the top priority.

If eking out that funding deal proves difficult, it will severely complicate the rest of the agenda.

The biggest task for lawmakers this lame duck will be sorting through a quagmire of appropriations bills to fund the government for fiscal year 2017. Neither the House nor the Senate managed to pass all the individual appropriations bills before leaving for the conventions in July, so they will need to agree on a comprehensive funding bill to keep the government open into the new year. There is always a chance of passing another short-term funding bill as both chambers did in September – but that’s an unpalatable option for everyone.

Speaker Paul Ryan and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell have both indicated a preference for the traditional approach of first trying to pass a series of smaller funding measures borne out of the appropriations bills that did pass over the summer. That would create a series of so-called “minibuses” instead of a larger “omnibus.”

There are risks to that strategy. While it is closer to the “normal order” of the House that Ryan pledged to adhere to when winning the speakership, it gives the House Freedom Caucus and House Democrats more opportunities to object to the substance of each minibus. When all government funding is wrapped into one bill it is less likely that lawmakers will object to or sink the vote over amendments or policy inclusions. The risk of being blamed for shutting down the government is just too high.

Regardless, the conservative wing of the GOP will aggressively push McConnell and Ryan to secure right-of-center wins in any government funding deal without relying on Democrats to push the package over the threshold for victory.
Democrats could see their hands strengthened in negotiations, however, if either the White House stays in their control and/or they take back the Senate from the GOP.

The 2016 presidential campaign has created unprecedented opposition to trade, though on Capitol Hill there is a muted desire among pro-trade Republicans and Democrats to see the Trans-Pacific Partnership taken up before this Congress adjourns.

But the outcome for TPP depends heavily on the presidential election. If Clinton wins, we could see intense pressure from the White House, the business community and pro-trade lawmakers for Congress to consider the trade package before she takes office. Clinton has spent months distancing herself from TPP – despite negotiating its early iterations – because of an anti-trade, anti-corporation ideology among Democrats promoted by her primary challenger, Sen. Bernie Sanders. If pro-trade lawmakers don’t pass the controversial trade package before she takes office, it is unlikely to be considered again for years, as progressives would demand concessions on higher labor and environmental standards from the White House.

If Trump wins, anti-trade sentiment is expected to continue. He’s made his opposition to TPP a cornerstone of his campaign and would likely look to rewrite the accord rather than pass it as is.

Adding pressure to the equation is a sustained push from the other Pacific Rim countries (namely Japan and Australia) that have strongly signaled their intent to move ahead with the deal even if the U.S. isn’t involved.

Even historically pro-trade Republican voters are changing opinions this election. A POLITICO-Harvard poll found that 47 percent of GOP voters surveyed said trade deals hurt their communities – compared to the only 18 percent who believe it helped. Still, Conservative Republicans in the House Freedom Caucus have privately indicated that they could support the basic provisions of the trade deal but don’t trust Obama to execute or enforce it. This indicates there could be hope during a TPP vote with some of the 34 Republicans who voted against the Trade Promotion Authority in 2015 could support the Pacific deal.

As for Democrats, the POLITICO-Harvard poll, 24 percent of surveyed Democratic voters said trade deals hurt their communities compared with 33 percent who believe they are beneficial. Twenty-eight House Democrats supported TPA. It will be those members who provide the support among the left for any trade deal. Still some members, especially from blue-collar districts, have expressed their need for political cover after the TPA vote.

Even with all the talk of TPP during this election, it is unlikely that it will be ratified this year unless pro-trade coalitions mount a political blitz to make it happen.

Ryan has indicated TPP is unlikely to come up for a vote in the lame duck session. “As long as we don’t have the votes, I see no point in bringing up an agreement only to defeat it,” Ryan said in August on a Wisconsin public radio program.

Neither the House nor the Senate could overcome internal turmoil and pass an agreed upon version of the critical Water Resources Development Act (WRDA) earlier this year. But two determined committee leaders – Sen. Barbara Boxer and Rep. Bill Shuster – used the recess to build support for WRDA’s lame duck passage. Staff level negotiations are underway to move legislation, but there is always concern it could get further delayed or crowded out.

The major consternation here will likely be among House Republicans.

The House Republican members of the conservative Freedom Caucus suffered a significant loss over the summer when one of their own, Rep. Tim Huelskamp, lost his primary battle in Kansas. It is a scenario that has greatly angered Huelskamp’s allies in the House – and they’ve pledged to make that irritation known. One of the many current targets: delaying leadership elections. As one conservative member put it to POLITICO, “We’d like to see how folks conduct themselves in the most crucial time of this Congress… the funding issue, omni, mini-bus.”

Delayed elections would essentially mean that Republican leaders in the House are on notice for the entire lame duck. Ryan hasn’t given in on many of the Freedom Caucus demands as of late –the conservative group only got a hearing on IRS Commissioner John Koskinen versus the vote for impeachment they first sought, for example, so it is hard to imagine that the leadership elections will be delayed.

If they don’t see action from Republican leaders on the Internal Revenue Service or the funding talks, the Freedom Caucus could band together and complicate efforts for Ryan and House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy or Majority Whip Steve Scalise. While Freedom Caucus members are a small percentage of the Republican conference, they carry an outsized influence on the entire GOP conference. And their reach would only increase if the GOP majority shrank.

No challengers have announced intentions to oppose McCarthy or Scalise but there is likely to be at least one conservative candidate in the race as an alternative. Scalise and McCarthy are popular among the members, however, so it would be hard to unseat them.

The House doesn’t elect a new speaker until the beginning of the 115th Congress, so Ryan has time before colleagues vote upon his future. How fractured the November internal elections are could give us a glimpse into the type of fight we’re likely to see come January. So far the 30-something conservative group is divided over keeping Ryan or attempting to install a new speaker. In the end, we expect that Ryan will be reelected Speaker and lead the Republicans in the next Congress.

In the Senate, it will be a new era for Democrats as Minority Leader Sen. Harry Reid of Nevada is retiring. New York Sen. Charles E. Schumer has openly been campaigning for the top spot among his party – whether that’s Senate majority or minority leader. Illinois Sen. Dick Durbin and Washington Sen. Patty Murray are also expected to have senior roles within in the leadership ranks.

Senate Republicans are unlikely to see major change from their ranks as current Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and Senate Majority Whip John Cornyn are likely to keep their posts.

In the House, Democrats only have one competitive election – the one for Democratic vice chairman for the Caucus. California Reps. Linda Sanchez and Barbra Lee are both eyeing the spot, but Sanchez is assumed to have the edge. Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi and Minority Whip Steny Hoyer are both safe in their senior posts.

An energy policy modernization bill has been stalled in the Senate since the spring, but both chambers are looking toward the lame duck as the best time to push the legislation through Congress – even with President Barack Obama’s veto threat on the House’s version.

There is hope the package could move, but it is far from a done deal.

Still, Obama threatened to veto the House version of the bill as it contains several measures that would significantly curtail the climate change agenda he worked to implement during his eight years as president.

Members and staff have been working throughout the recess to craft a compromise bill ahead of the lame duck. If passed it would streamline the permitting process for liquefied natural gas exports, modernize the electric grid, and raise energy efficiency standards for commercial and federal buildings.


  • Intelligence Authorization – The House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence and the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence have both reported their versions of the Intelligence Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2017 out of committee. Senior staff expect all but a handful of issues that must be dealt with at the member-level to be reconciled by the time Congress resumes post-election. Senior aides are optimistic that an intelligence authorization bill will move this year, likely attached to another piece of must pass legislation. This bill codifies what is allowed under covert and clandestine operations and defines reporting requirements from such operations to Congress.
  • NASA Authorization – The last NASA Authorization Act was enacted in 2010. Rumors have been circulating for months that NASA’s oversight committees (House Science and Senate Commerce) will try to get a new NASA authorization bill enacted before the end of this Congress. This is of great importance to NASA supporters who have chafed at significant changes that have eroded funding/support for human space flight and space transportation programs. They seek to lock in current NASA programs and avoid another battle royale on the Hill in case the next president considers another round of cuts to the space agency’s programs.
  • Medical Innovation – The 21st Century Cures Act has been stalled in the Senate for a year but both McConnell and Ryan have said they’ll use the lame duck session to pass the medical innovation package. How the bill would fund NIH has been the persistent roadblock against passage but there is major incentive to see it passed, as the Kentucky Republican called the package the “most significant piece of legislation” in Congress.
  • National Defense Authorization Act – The defense policy bill is certainly coming down to the wire this year, but it is not expected to lapse (having passed annually since 1961). 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. Committee staffers have continued discussions over key sticking points, such as a topline funding number, women in the draft, the use of war-time money, and partnerships between defense agencies and entrepreneurs in Silicon Valley.

We expect the House and Senate will bundle the appropriations bill into the omni or minibuses after the November elections, and the NDAA will mirror whatever topline budget numbers are included in the larger funding bill. That’s how this process has played in recent memory, and there are few – if any – indications that this year will be markedly different.

Congress is coming back with a hefty to-do list that is sure to cause major fights over ideology and political control during the lame duck session. We’ll be back next week with additional reviews of how the presidential and senatorial races are unfolding before diving right back into the congressional schedule after the election.

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