Congress has a crucial to-do list in September: Here's what lawmakers must accomplish

WASHINGTON — Congress returned from its August recess Tuesday to face a daunting list of things that must be completed by the end of September to avoid potential damage to the U.S. economy and American taxpayers. And that was before President Trump on Tuesday set a six-month expiration date on President Obama's program offering deportation protection to illegal immigrants who were brought to the country as children.

Trump said it is up to Congress to pass legislation by March if they want to restore those protections, but Congress generally operates on the deadlines directly in front of them, so don't expect immigration to be first up this fall. Instead, here are the major issues lawmakers have to solve before the end of September.

Keep the government open

Funding for federal agencies runs out when the 2018 fiscal year begins on Oct. 1. Lawmakers are once again scrambling to reach consensus on a spending package to keep the government running for another 12 months.

The House has passed a chunk of spending bills for national security agencies and may pass the remaining bills to fund the rest of the government early this month. But the Senate has made taken no action, and House Speaker Paul Ryan, R-Wis., said he's worried the Senate will not have enough time to act once the House completes its legislation. Ryan said Congress will probably have to pass a stop-gap spending bill to fund the government at existing levels for a few weeks or months to give lawmakers more time to craft a long-term bill.

Government shutdowns are unpopular with the public. The last shutdown, in 2013, cost the U.S. economy $24 billion in lost economic output, according to an estimate by Standard & Poor's financial services company.

Prevent the federal government from defaulting on its debt

Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin has warned that the government will run out of money to pay its bills by Sept. 29 unless lawmakers vote to raise the debt limit.

The limit, set by Congress, is the amount the U.S. Treasury can borrow to pay the government's existing debts, including Social Security and Medicare benefits, military salaries, tax refunds, interest on the national debt, and other obligations.

The limit was reached in mid-March, forcing Mnuchin to take extraordinary measures — at a cost to taxpayers of at least $2.5 billion — to avoid an immediate default.

Economists have warned that a default, which has never happened before, could plunge the nation back into recession and ignite a global economic crisis. Congressional leaders have assured the public that the debt limit will be raised in time, but some House conservatives vow to oppose the action unless it is linked to cuts in the federal budget.

Decide how to respond to Trump's demand to fund a border wall

Trump complicated the spending bill debate when he threatened at an Aug. 22 rally in Phoenix to shut down the government if Congress doesn't approve funding to build a wall on the Southwest border.

The House has already passed legislation that included $1.6 billion for construction of 74 miles of wall along the 2,000-mile border between the U.S. and Mexico. But Democrats oppose any bill that includes money for the barrier, and their votes are needed in the closely divided Senate.

If Congress sends Trump a spending bill that does not include wall funding, the president will have to decide whether to veto it and shut down the government. Trump originally promised that Mexico would pay for the wall, but the Mexican government has said it has no intention of doing so.

Lawmakers may be able to delay an immediate showdown with the White House by passing a short-term funding bill to keep the government open beyond September while they negotiate a long-term deal. The White House has suggested that Trump might be willing to accept a short-term spending deal without wall money.

Provide emergency aid for victims of Hurricane Harvey

The president has promised "very rapid action from Congress" to approve emergency aid to help recovery and rebuilding efforts in Texas and Louisiana, where Hurricane Harvey caused massive flooding.

House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., is planning to bring a $7.9 billion aid package to the House floor Wednesday, but this is just a first downpayment on what will likely need to be $100 billion or more of federal aid.

The politics of emergency aid have become more complicated in recent years as some conservative Republicans have balked at spending money on relief efforts unless the cost is offset by cuts in federal programs. Democrats and some Republicans have argued that emergency spending should not be dependent on budget cuts.

It's not yet clear whether Congress will take up hurricane aid as a separate bill or tie it to legislation to fund the government or raise the debt ceiling, which White House officials have suggested.

There is also another storm brewing in the Caribbean — Hurricane Irma — and if it strikes land with anywhere near the force of Harvey, the urgency of disaster relief legislation will simply increase.

Renew the National Flood Insurance Program

The devastating floods that have destroyed more than 100,000 homes in the wake of Hurricane Harvey have focused renewed attention on the National Flood Insurance Program, which is set to expire on Sept. 30 unless Congress extends it.

The program provides the only way for most American homeowners to buy flood insurance since most private insurers refuse to provide it in flood-prone areas.

Some congressional Republicans, concerned that huge disasters are leading to huge bailouts by taxpayers, want to restructure the program to rein in costs and move part of the burden of providing insurance back to the private sector. But opponents say that approach would lead to dramatic increases in insurance premiums for homeowners, making protection too costly for many people.

The debate over the program's long-term future is likely to be delayed as the impact of Hurricane Harvey pushes Congress to pass an immediate extension.

Decide whether to make another attempt to repeal Obamacare

Republicans in the House and Senate have vowed to take another run at repealing and replacing the Affordable Care Act after their efforts collapsed before the August recess.

The problem is: Republicans were using a special set of rules that only required 51 votes in the Senate, not the 60 usually required to overcome a filibuster. Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., announced Friday that the Senate parliamentarian has concluded those streamlined rules expire Sept. 30, meaning if Republicans want to move a bill without Democratic support, they have to do it this month.

No Republicans have indicated a plan to do that, but they do now appear to be facing a deadline.

© 2017 USATODAY.COM


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