When Congress returned in September after the summer recess it faced an exhaustive list of legislative actions before adjourning in December: FY2016 appropriations; Iran nuclear deal; FY2016 Defense Authorization bill; Highway and Transit reauthorization; Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) reauthorization; Export-Import Bank reauthorization; expiring tax credits reauthorization; and increasing the debt ceiling.
Although this Congress has been criticized sharply for its lack of progress, during the past three months Congress has acted on a number of high profile items. Congress and the White House negotiated a clean CR that funds the government until December 11. A budget deal that suspended the debt ceiling until March 2017 and provided two-year relief from sequestration and funding increases for defense and nondefense budgets was agreed to in late October, passed, and signed by the president.
The FY2016 Defense Authorization bill that aligned with the budget agreement was passed and signed by the president.
Congress passed and the president signed the Airport and Airway Extension Act of 2015 (H.R. 3614) that extended authorization for the Federal Aviation Administration until March 31, 2016.
House and Senate conferees have agreed to the “Fixing America's Surface Transportation (FAST) Act” that authorizes federal surface transportation funding for five years and includes reforms to transportation programs. The bill would also reauthorize the Export-Import Bank until 2019. The bill could go to the president as early as Friday.
With this success behind them, Congress now faces the final push to complete what would be an impressive list of accomplishments.
With the Continuing Resolution (CR) set to run out in eight days, Congress must pass either a FY2016 Omnibus Appropriations bill or another CR by December 11 to avoid a government shutdown. The House and Senate have passed their versions of the FY2016 Military Construction/VA bill thus providing a vehicle for an Omnibus bill that includes all 12 appropriations bills. Committees have been working on reaching agreement on the other 11 appropriations bills and House and Senate leaders hope to have a bill complete by December 11, although another short-term CR may be needed to finish and get the bill to the president.
Of course, this optimistic sentiment is based on House Speaker Paul Ryan's (R-WI) ability to ensure that strong pressure from many Republicans to defund Planned Parenthood or other policy riders do not derail the negotiations. If an Omnibus bill defunded Planned Parenthood the president would surely veto it forcing a shutdown showdown, something few seem to want. Other potential “poison pills” that would force Democrat opposition is significant changes to Dodd-Frank or restrictions to immigration. There could also be a push from some defense hawks to increase defense funding above the amount set in the budget agreement.
Ryan's challenge is to provide supporters of Planed Parenthood defunding and other policy riders a way to address their concerns without forcing a government shutdown crisis.
Finally, in what has become an annual ritual, Congress will have to address some 50 expiring tax credits (so-called tax extenders) that will expire on December 31. These tax credits include individual tax deductions, business incentives (e.g. research and development credits), and energy tax credits. For a number of years Congress has routinely extended these tax credits for only a year. Congress will probably extend the credits through FY2016, although there is a strong push to make some extenders, such as he research and development tax credit, permanent. There is also a chance that a tax extenders bill could include a provision, pushed by Democrats, that would end or modify the so-called “Cadillac Tax.” This 40 percent tax on expensive health insurance plans, mostly offered by employers, is part of the “Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act,” and there is some concern that the president could veto the entire bill, if it makes significant changes to this tax.