Congress Faces a Tense Agenda, With Little Margin for Error

By Michael C. Bender and Kristina PetersonFeaturesDow Jones Newswires

Congress returns Tuesday from its summer break and, in a test of the uneasy alliance between President Donald Trump and Senate Republicans, will have to grapple with keeping the federal government open, paying U.S. creditors and passing a hurricane-aid bill.

The list is long, and the time is short. The Trump administration is asking for approval of $7.85 billion to begin paying for the recovery from Hurricane Harvey, with a House vote scheduled for Wednesday. Congress also must keep the government running after current funding expires by Oct. 1, as well as raise the U.S. borrowing limit or risk defaulting on the nation's debt.

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Adding to the tension, the House and Senate are in session at the same time for just 12 days in September, and Messrs. Trump and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell haven't met in weeks.

The president invited the Kentucky Republican and other GOP leaders to Bedminster, N.J., during his working vacation last month, but they were unable to coordinate schedules, according to people familiar with the planning.

Mr. Trump over the August recess repeatedly criticized Republican lawmakers over Twitter, blaming them for the failure to repeal the health-care law. His tweets underscored the party's inability to pass major legislation, despite controlling both chambers and the White House for the first time since 2007.

Both House and Senate Republicans said Mr. Trump's attacks on his own party won't help them quickly pass the looming high-stakes bills that already face little room for error in either chamber.

"It's a little unhealthy, quite honestly," Rep. Kevin Cramer (R., N.D.), a longtime Trump supporter, said, pointing out the party's slim 52-48 majority in the Senate. He particularly questioned Mr. Trump's attacks on Republican Sens. Jeff Flake and John McCain at an August rally in Phoenix.

"You have a small margin, and punching two of them in the nose in their home state makes it pretty difficult" to pass a Republican agenda in the Senate, Mr. Cramer said.

Among the pressing issues are funding for the children's health insurance and a federal flood insurance program, which both expire Sept. 30.

Looking ahead, the president is expected to give Congress a six-month deadline to pass legislation to replace a program that shields from deportation immigrants brought to the U.S. as children. And Mr. Trump's top advisers have promised to deliver a bill overhauling the tax code by mid-November, said a person familiar with the discussion.

Many lawmakers expect at least some of the Harvey aid to be added to a measure raising the debt limit, which is a difficult vote for many Republican lawmakers. While hurricane aid is broadly supported, some influential conservatives have raised concerns about pairing it with the debt limit.

"Our obligation is to assist those impacted by this great flood, but it's past time the swamp waters in DC begin receding as well," Rep. Mark Walker (R., N.C.), chairman of the Republican Study Committee, a group of more than 150 House Republicans, said in a statement Monday.

Democrats have said they want to find a bipartisan path on both issues.

"Providing aid in the wake of Harvey and raising the debt ceiling are both important issues and Democrats want to work to do both," Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D., N.Y.) and House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D., Calif.) said in a joint statement.

The relationship between the White House and congressional Republicans began to fray before the August recess, as the Senate struggled to overhaul the health-care law.

Mr. McConnell, a fastidious, 30-year veteran of the Senate, often prepared note cards with points he wanted to make during phone calls with the president. Mr. Trump was more casual, starting conversations with several minutes of chatter about the day's headlines or what he had seen on TV, the kind of banter he used as a businessman with VIPs, according to people familiar with their discussions.

As it became clear Mr. McConnell couldn't summon enough Republican votes to repeal the Affordable Care Act, the Senate majority leader stopped responding to the president's chitchat, the people familiar said.

"Mitch?" the president said when Mr. McConnell fell silent in one call. "Are you there?"

Mr. McConnell waited a beat, then responded. "Yes, Mr. President. Back to the bill," according to those familiar with the talks.

The repeal measure failed by one vote, raising the stakes on the performance of lawmakers who return this month to significant fiscal matters.

"If they don't get something done that is substantial," former Sen. Judd Gregg said of fellow Republicans, "they are going to have a horrific experience in the next election."

Many Republicans who faced constituents during the August recess found many who sided with Mr. Trump and faulted party leaders for keeping the president from enacting his agenda.

While Mr. Trump's attacks on lawmakers may have resonated with some voters, they are unlikely to help lawmakers deliver results, especially in the Senate, current and former Republican officials said.

"I do not think this strategy will further his ability to build the legislative consensus he needs to address major issues like tax reform and infrastructure," said former Sen. Kelly Ayotte (R., N.H.). "When it comes to counting individual votes, it would be better for the president to work cooperatively with them and the members of his party."

The most significant bill written and passed by Congress this year imposed sanctions on Russia -- despite concerns raised by the White House.

Some lawmakers worry about diminished prospects for their re-election if the much sought-after tax overhaul meets the same fate as the failed health-care bill.

"If we can't even do that, then nothing will get done before 2018," said Rep. Tom Rooney (R., Fla.)

The U.S. Chamber of Commerce, the business lobby group, is already preparing an ad campaign aimed at pressuring mostly House Republicans to move on a tax rewrite.

Mr. Trump's tactics could have an impact, said former Rep. Mickey Edwards (R., Okla.), if the president's supporters pressure Republicans to support his agenda. Mr. Edwards pointed to a poll that showed Mr. Flake, one of the president's targets, badly trailing his GOP primary opponent.

"As long as we have a system in which primary voters can end your career, what Trump is doing is very potent," Mr. Edwards said.


Janet Hook

contributed to this article.

(END) Dow Jones Newswires

September 04, 2017 19:25 ET (23:25 GMT)