Congress returns to a full plate of deadlines and presidential directives

PHOTO: The US Capitol is seen on Aug. 24, 2017 in Washington, DC.PlayAFP/Getty Images
WATCH Congress has heavy workload

After an unusually eventful summer recess, Congress is returning to work this week with a long to-do list driven by fiscal year deadlines, natural disasters and presidential directives.

Here’s a look at what the House and the Senate will tackle starting today:

Creeping deadlines to keep the government functioning

The end of the month brings several critical can’t-miss deadlines.

First, Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin has urged lawmakers to raise the debt ceiling by Sept. 29 to prevent the government from running out of money to pay its bills. Then, when the new fiscal year begins on Oct. 1, Congress must also have passed a measure to fund most operations of the federal government and avoid a shutdown. It’s likely that the House and Senate will pass a short-term continuing resolution to buy themselves more time to negotiate a longer deal.

They’ll also have to contend with sometimes contrarian messaging from the White House. During a campaign event in Phoenix in August, President Donald Trump threatened a government shutdown if lawmakers did not approve funding to build his promised U.S.-Mexico border wall, but congressional Republican leaders have signaled that idea is a non-starter.

Hurricane Harvey funding

During a "Fox News Sunday" appearance, Mnuchin said he and Trump believe Congress should raise the debt ceiling and approve an initial tranche of funding for Hurricane Harvey recovery together.

"The president and I believe that [the debt ceiling] should be tied to the Harvey funding. Our first priority is to make sure that the state gets money. It is critical. And to do that, we need to make sure we raise the debt limit," Mnuchin said.

The White House has asked Congress to approve an initial $7.85 billion in supplemental spending to help afflicted areas recover from Hurricane Harvey, a senior White House official told ABC News Friday.

Most of that money would go to FEMA and a smaller portion to the Small Business Administration. It’s likely that Congress will also eventually vote on a larger package for more long-term aid, as was the case in 2013 after Hurricane Sandy, when Congress approved an initial $9.7 billion and later passed another $51 billion package, the latter amid cries of fiscal irresponsibility from some conservatives, including both Texas Sens. John Cornyn and Ted Cruz.

While there’s no deadline to pass these funds, obviously the goal is to provide aid to Harvey relief as soon as possible.

Health care premiums

The health insurance industry breathed a collective but momentary sigh of relief when Trump announced in mid-August that he would, in fact, approve that month’s payments to help offset the costs of insuring low-income people, known as cost-sharing reductions.

But the president has repeatedly threatened to stop the payments, which keeps the marketplace in a constant state of suspense. The Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions (HELP) Committee is holding a series of hearings in early this month on longer-term solutions to stabilize insurance premiums on the individual market beginning on Wednesday, bringing in a group of state insurance commissioners to get their suggestions.

HELP Chairman Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., has said Congress should vote on a bill to fund CSR payments through 2018, but the committee is of course also concerned about what happens after then.

On top of all this, tax reform

Having revised their initial estimate that sweeping reform of the tax code would be done by August, Mnuchin and White House Economic Council Director Gary Cohn now say they want to accomplish it by the end of the year -- still a steep deadline that none of the congressional committees of jurisdiction have endorsed publicly.

While Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., has signaled he may pursue tax reform under a 51-vote majority, which would not require any Democratic votes, that leaves him with the same slim margin for defection that plagued Republicans during the failed health care debate.

And there could be fault lines between the president’s public rhetoric, like when he previewed “the biggest tax cut in the history of our country” during the Phoenix rally, and the congressional reality, where McConnell and House Speaker Paul Ryan, R-Wis., must appease two Republican majorities with disparate priorities when it comes to the tax code. The “Big Six” leaders on tax reform -- Mnuchin, Cohn, McConnell, Ryan and the chairmen of the House and Senate tax-writing committees -- have been meeting regularly, with a big visit with Trump scheduled Tuesday, but those deadlines remain ambitious.

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