Congress returns this week (after a seven-week recess) with less than four weeks until the end of the fiscal year and nine weeks until the November elections.
Facing this time constraint on FY2017 funding and the desire by members to get back out on the campaign trail, House and Senate leaders will meet this week to decide on their strategy to address legislative priorities before recessing again in early October. Most of the discussions and negotiations will center around funding to fight the Zika virus and dealing with FY2017 appropriations to avoid a government shutdown. The FY2017 Defense Authorization bill (passed by both the House and Senate and now in conference) is also seen as pressing legislation, but the limited schedule and disagreement on defense funding levels makes movement doubtful at this time.
Zika virus funding. The House passed legislation providing $1.1 billion in funding to combat the Zika virus. However, Democrats blocked consideration of the bill in the Senate because of attached legislation that prohibited Zika funding from going to Planned Parenthood and weakened some environmental regulations. Senate Republican leaders look to bring up this funding bill again, but Democrats are determined to block another vote.
Continuing stalemate in the Senate could push consideration of Zika funding into the debate on the CR or a possible omnibus appropriations bill. Complicating the politics of this issue, the Center for Disease Control (CDC) has said that funding for Zika programs could run out by the end of the month. Nevertheless, supporters of Zika funding on both sides of the aisle are confident that the funding issue will be settled before congress adjourns.
FY2017 Appropriations. With only three and a half weeks left before the start of FY2017, the House and Senate will be forced to come up with a Continuing Resolution (CR) to keep the government from shutting down; an outcome that both Republicans and Democrats want to avoid. A CR is necessary because to date no FY2017 appropriations bills have been signed into law. The House has passed only six FY2017 appropriations bills (Defense, Energy and Water, Financial Services, Interior and Environment, Legislative, and Military Construction/Veterans Affairs) and the Senate has only passed three appropriations bills (Energy and Water, Military Construction/Veterans Affairs, and Transportation/HUD). The Senate Republican leadership will again try to pass the FY2017 DoD Appropriations bill (already passed in the House), but Democrat leaders will move to block action, just as they did in July.
Debate on a CR will be over content (whether the CR will be clean or will include legislation to address particular concerns) and time frame (short-or long term). Republicans and Democrats often push for legislation on their interests in a CR and the White House will surely weigh in as well. For example, Republicans will press for increased defense funding and restrictions on nondefense spending and Democrats will advocate for stronger environmental legislation, gun control, and health and safety issues. Zika funding could be included in a CR if an agreement is not reached and emergency funding for flood damage resulting from recent storms could be addressed. But, final decisions on what is in a CR or what will be included in an omnibus appropriations bill will not be made until the length of the CR is settled.
Conservative Republicans in the House are arguing for a six-month CR that would carry over into next year when a new president and congress are in place. They are concerned that a short-term CR will lead to an omnibus FY2017 appropriations bill in a lame duck session that will result in higher spending. Certainly supporters of higher defense funding (including Republicans and Democrats) see a time-pressed omnibus appropriations bill as the leverage for higher defense appropriations in FY2017. This is also true for other high interest issues on both sides of the aisle.
Democrats want a short-term CR, possibly up to mid-December, followed by an omnibus appropriations bill. Senate Democrat Leader Sen. Harry Reid (D-NV) has stated flatly the Democrats will not agree to a six-month CR, warning that any push for a long-term CR could lead to a government shutdown. Both Republican and Democrat leaders have expressed a strong desire to avoid a shutdown and the blame that would come with it right before the elections. And, House Republican leaders might see a short-term CR as the way to maintain control of the process in a lame duck session, especially if it appears that Democrats could control the Senate in the new Congress.