Gridlock in Congress may presage more of the same
A bitterly divided Congress adjourned Thursday for the election, having accomplished little more than the bare minimum, with lawmakers looking ahead to a lame-duck session and a weighty todo list already piling up for next year.
A must-pass spending bill, agreed to after an unnecessarily protracted struggle and repeated rounds of partisan finger-pointing, extends government funding until Dec. 9 and addresses the Zika crisis with $1.1 billion months after President Barack Obama initially requested federal aid. Lawmakers advanced spending for flood victims in Louisiana and a compromise to help victims of lead-tainted water in Flint, Michigan.
Obama swiftly signed the spending bill into law.
When they return to Washington after the election, lawmakers will have to complete the annual appropriations process, which fell apart this year even though getting it on track was a top priority for the leaders of Congress’ GOP majorities, House Speaker Paul Ryan of Wisconsin and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky. Only one of the 12 must-pass annual spending bills has been completed.
“This is what divided government gets you,” Ryan said Thursday. “You don’t always get what you want in divided government.”
Yet next year is likely to herald still more divisions. Even if Republicans hold the House as expected, manage to win the White House with Donald Trump and hang onto their fragile Senate majority, minority Democrats would still exercise significant power in the Senate. Republican control would be incomplete under the most optimistic scenarios for the GOP.
If Democrats win the White House or the Senate, it would usher in another era of divided government, perhaps even more fraught.
At the same time, Congress and the next president, whether Trump or Democrat Hillary Clinton, will confront a series of daunting tasks pushed off into 2017 by a catch-all budget deal negotiated under the former House speaker, John Boehner, on his way out the door last year.
Perhaps most monumental, the debt limit will need to be raised by around midsummer, something that has provoked intense battles in recent years.
Lawmakers will need to revisit major programs, including the Children’s Health Insurance Program under Medicaid, along with payments to hospitals and community health centers and expiring tax credits for a range of industries. There’s also the annual budgeting process, a perennially tricky defense policy bill, reauthorization of the Federal Aviation Administration and a Supreme Court vacancy to fill.
“Given the heavy weight of some those issues, some of them are not going to be delicate by any stretch of the imagination,” said Rep. Mark Sanford, R-S.C.
Whichever party controls the Senate, the majority is likely to be razor-thin and senators will focus immediately on the 2018 election, when Democrats will be defending tough seats in GOP leaning states.
In the Republican-led House, the number of moderate-minded GOP lawmakers is likely to be reduced, potentially giving more power to the House Freedom Caucus, which frequently opposes routine legislation and impedes dealmaking by leadership.
And Ryan is widely seen as having presidential ambitions in 2020, which may complicate his willingness to cut deals with the White House.
“Ryan will have a decision to make,” said the second-ranking House Democratic leader, Rep. Steny Hoyer of Maryland. “Do I want to be perceived as the leader of the obstructionist party, or do I want to be seen as the constructive opposition which works with the president and the Senate to achieve progress?”
Before getting to next year, lawmakers must first get through the post-election lame-duck session. The election results will determine much of what is possible, but prospects for action may be slim apart from completing work on the needed spending bills, which Congress could end up punting with yet another extension.
Ryan is holding out hope for progress on criminal justice reform legislation sought by Obama and members of both parties, but McConnell suggested Thursday that was unlikely. And Obama is pushing hard to advance his legacy-shaping trade deal for Asia, the Trans-Pacific Partnership, but McConnell and Ryan have indicated that is unlikely. McConnell has said repeatedly he has no plans to advance Obama’s Supreme Court nominee, Merrick Garland, this year.
Beyond that, lawmakers must complete a water projects bill with the Flint money in it and could come together around a medical research bill.
Before leaving town, congressional leaders devoted some of Thursday to blaming each other for their slim record of accomplishments so far this year, taking credit for what did happen, and insisting that if nothing much happens in the lame-duck it will be the fault of the other party, not their own.
“My hope is that after the election, they’ll drop their political shenanigans and we’ll get on at doing the serious business of actually appropriating,” Ryan said of Democrats.
Democrats, of course, begged to differ.
“Republicans have not done their basic work of government,” said Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev. “And that is the truth.”
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, second from left, standing with, from left, Sen. Roger Wicker, R-Miss., Sen. John Thune, R-S.D., and Senate Majority Whip John Cornyn, of Texas, listens to a question during a news conference on Capitol Hill in Washington on Sept. 13.