Congress’s Homestretch Marked by Spending, ACA-Repeal Questions

Welcome to the homestretch. Lawmakers return Monday for what they hope is a three-week sprint before calling an end to the first half of the 114th Congress.

Topping the agenda is a year-end omnibus spending bill that lawmakers must pass before Dec. 11, when the latest temporary funding extension expires.

Negotiators are in the midst of talks about how to allocate and extra $50 billion in government dollars, courtesy of the most recent budget deal, among the 12 appropriations bills. But the money really isn’t the issue. The biggest remaining questions ask two things: 1) Which policy riders Republicans will insist on including in the final package? 2) Will Democrats walk away from the negotiating table as a result?

Here are some of the more controversial provisions being discussed as part of the year-end spending bill: language to block the administration’s Syrian refugee plan, measures to loosen Dodd-Frank’s grip on small and mid-size banks, and efforts to restrict Environmental Protection Agency rulemaking.

While members figure out how to navigate these political and fiscal time bombs, the Senate will debate a few other issues.

Senate Majority Whip John Cornyn (R-Texas) says Republicans plan on bringing a budget reconciliation bill to the floor this week to  strike down portions of Obamacare and restrict Planned Parenthood’s federal funding. Senate Republicans will hold a Monday evening conference meeting to discuss repealing the healthcare law.

In its current form the reconciliation bill, which cannot be filibustered, is mired in a tangled web of parliamentary and political concerns. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) is at least a few votes short of clearing the 51-vote hurdle. What’s more, the Senate parliamentarian has advised that some provisions of the House-passed bill violated the chamber’s rules. McConnell’s office has said those problems can be fixed in a substitute amendment, which Congressional Quarterly reports might expand the scope of the Obamacare rollback.

Lawmakers are also racing against the clock to take up the final version of highway bill. House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee Chairman Bill Shuster (R-Pa.) said earlier this month that a bicameral conference committee aimed to complete its work by Nov. 30, only days before the Dec. 4 deadline to reauthorize transportation programs.

As the transportation conference committee works through a number of policy differences between a House and Senate bill, keep an eye on what happens to the legislation’s payment provisions. The Senate initially proposed cutting the dividend that some banks receive from the Federal Reserve System, but a last-minute House amendment swapped that language with a provision to drain the Fed’s capital reserve account.

The Congressional Budget Office estimates that the House proposal would provide the highway trust fund with an additional $40 billion, adding at least a year of certainty to funding for the surface transportation program. Lawmakers say it is possible that conferees will blend the two Fed proposals.

Cornyn has also said that McConnell might attempt to bring the Defense appropriations bill to the floor for the third time this year before turning to the omnibus. Democrats have twice blocked consideration of that measure, unwilling to go along with defense spending until they are assured domestic programs will also receive the same amount.

The House will vote on a broad energy bill this week. The measure is the biggest energy achievement of House Energy and Commerce Committee Chairman Fred Upton (R-Mich.), who worked with ranking member Frank Pallone (D-N.J.) most of the year to craft the bill. It would create an energy infrastructure modernization fund and update reliability analytics.

But the bipartisan support for the bill fell apart in the last month with the addition of language to expedite liquified natural gas exports and alter the Energy Department’s involvement in model building codes. Democrats on the committee angrily denounced the last-minute changes and voted against it September.

The party-line vote probably won’t be much different on the House floor. But the debate will give Upton the chance to showcase to the full House the work of the committee and put him in a position to negotiate with the Senate, should the opportunity arise.

Two final items will round out the year before both chambers adjourn for the holidays on Dec. 18. There will likely be final votes on a bi-partisan effort to re-write No Child Left Behind. If the conference agreement passes, that will signal a major achievement for the GOP-controlled Congress.

In the next few weeks, lawmakers are also almost certain to vote on a perennial renewal of expired tax provisions.

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