Fall, always one of the prettiest seasons in Washington, D.C., is also poised this year to be one of its messiest, particularly for House Speaker John Boehner.
Congress returns Sept. 8, and both houses are set on a course for chaos, running rapidly into deadlines both to pass spending bills and raise the debt ceiling.
If that’s not enough, the federal highway bill is scheduled to expire Oct. 29. And then there are dozens of tax provisions that must be extended or millions of Americans will see their taxes go up. Then there’s the controversial Iran nuclear treaty, which Congress must vote to approve or disapprove of by Sept. 17.
Sound busy? We’re just getting started.
Throw in a Sept. 24 visit from Pope Francis, a resolution aimed at ousting Boehner from his speaker post and a crowded GOP presidential field pining to do anything possible to get a political upper hand — including, in some cases, shut down the government..
“It’s going to be a long, ugly fall,” predicts Jim Manley, a former aide to Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid.
A look at the road ahead:
Spending and the debt ceiling
Congress, in theory, must pass 12 spending bills every year. This year, the full Congress has passed zero, though the House alone had approved six.
But Congress faces an Oct. 1 deadline to pass spending bills or risk a government shutdown. The most likely scenario is that they’ll pass a bill that pays for the federal government at current levels.
But there are complications. Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, who is running for president, has vowed he will lead the fight to strip Planned Parenthood of all federal funding after a series of controversial videos were released raising questions that the organization was selling fetal body parts.
Cruz wrote a letter in USA Today warning Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell not to allow the Senate to vote on any legislation that pays for Planned Parenthood.
For his part, McConnell, R-Ky., has said he won’t allow a government shutdown, saying it would be politically calamitous. “We’ve been down this path before,” he said in early August.
“I think in the end, cooler heads will prevail,” said Columbus area Rep. Steve Stivers, R-Upper Arlington, saying he objects to federal dollars going to “morally questionable things,” but that the government needs to continue operating. “We can set our own priorities,” he said, through the spending bill.
While there’s a hard deadline to pass the spending bills, it’s unclear when Congress will have to raise the debt ceiling — or if Republicans will use that as leverage to win a political battle.
Robert Bixby of the Concord Coalition, a nonpartisan fiscal watchdog, said the federal government is likely to bump into that deadline sometime around Thanksgiving or Christmas.
A worse-case scenario, he said, would be a short-term extension of spending bills that would force Congress to juggle the debt ceiling and federal spending simultaneously.
“The campaign season is not going to help,” said Bixby, saying all the senators running “will make it difficult to give McConnell and Boehner “the negotiating room they need.”
The highway bill
The federal highway bill — which has seen 34 short-term extensions over the last six years — will run out Oct. 29.
Congress has been flummoxed by two forces: a need to invest in the nation’s infrastructure, and a highway trust fund that isn’t meeting the needs.
Currently, Americans rely primarily on a gas tax of 18.4 cents per gallon to pay for the nation’s infrastructure needs. That tax hasn’t been raised since 1993. More fuel-efficient cars and increased public transit usage have cut into the revenue that might otherwise be generated by the tax.
Without a consensus on how to pay for the nation’s highways, Congress has relied on a variety of gimmicks as short-term solutions.
Among the long-term solutions being floated is an international tax reform framework pushed by Sen. Rob Portman, R-Ohio, and Sen. Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y.
Manley said marrying tax reform and the highway bill makes sense.
But he doesn’t think it will happen..
“Nothing happens in Congress anymore without a deadline or a crisis,” he said.
Extending tax provisions
Congress’ return will also mean it takes up some 50 tax provisions that must be extended by the end of the year — everything from tax credits for energy-efficient home improvements, deductions of mortgage-insurance premiums and mortgage-debt forgiveness.
Many of those tax breaks will be retroactive; some of the homeowner tax deals expired at the end of last year and must be extended retroactively. Tiberi, a member of the House Ways and Means Committee, said the House hopes to make at least some of those provisions permanent.
“Basically, you’ve got four big time bombs,” said Bixby, ticking off the extenders, the debt ceiling, the highway bill and the spending bills.
Boehner has been a leading critic of U.S. negotiations with Iran from the beginning, sparking the ire of the Obama administration by inviting Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu last year to address Congress without first consulting the administration.
Now, the deal brokered between Iran and a coalition of six countries including the U.S. faces a congressional vote. The agreement aims to keep Iran nuclear free for 15 years, and President Obama has said he will veto any bill disapproving of the deal.
Rep. Pat Tiberi, R-Genoa Twp. outside Columbus, said his constituents have been “pretty overwhelmingly” opposed to the deal. “The goal was to make sure Iran did not become a nuclear state,” he said, “What the agreement does is put in place and legitimize the ability to become a nuclear threshold state.”
The votes will occur by Sept. 17. With Republicans in charge of the House and Senate, both chambers will likely reject the deal. But so far they don’t have enough votes to override a veto. “The president is going to win,” Manley predicts.
Politics and the presidential race
Even as he juggles all of those issues, Boehner will continue to deal with dissent in his own party. In late July, Rep. Mark Meadows, a Tea Party conservative from North Carolina, filed a resolution that aims to remove Boehner from the speaker position.
Most don’t take the measure seriously, but it’s yet another sign that Boehner’s job is by no means easy — he continually faces about 40 members who don’t feel he’s far enough to the right. Meadows himself indicated to the conservative Daily Signal that if leadership doesn’t change to his liking, he will force a vote, and said he would “certainly entertain” being speaker himself.
Adding to the noise will be presidential politics. With billionaire Donald Trump atop the polls for the GOP presidential nomination, his grand pronouncements will continue to dominate the political landscape.
Ron Bonjean, a former spokesman for former House Speaker Dennis Hastert, R-Ill., said, “Donald Trump will run against Congress very loudly and blame both sides for the inability to reach consensus in an amicable way.”
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