Congress returns to work, with crushing deadlines on debt ceiling, Harvey funding

For all the talk of change in Washington, lawmakers return to Capitol Hill this week in a familiar position: up against a series of difficult deadlines to keep the government open and raise the nation’s debt ceiling.

But, for once, that effort may be taking on an unusual air of bipartisanship.

As they return to the nation's capital Tuesday from the monthlong summer recess, members of Congress have only weeks to fund the federal government, raise the debt ceiling, and reauthorize a health insurance program that benefits thousands of Maryland children. All of those issues have led to fierce political brawls in the past.

But Congress’ otherwise staggering September to-do list may be overshadowed by a bipartisan desire to pass emergency spending to help Texas and Louisiana recover from Hurricane Harvey. President Donald Trump is expected to request an $ 8 billion down payment for the ravaged Gulf states, and congressional leaders could tie other must-pass measures — such as broader government funding — to that bill.

Democrats have indicated broad support for recovery funding.

"Hopefully, Harvey will be an opportunity to bring the country and Congress together and realize that there are some very serious priorities we have to deal with," said Rep. C.A. Dutch Ruppersberger of Baltimore County, a member of the House Appropriations Committee. "It'll be a test for this Congress and this president.”

Still, the Republican approach is far from certain. In past disasters, conservatives have demanded that emergency funding be offset by cuts elsewhere. Trump, meanwhile, spent much of the August recess criticizing fellow Republicans on Twitter, exposing dissent within the GOP and potentially complicating his own agenda.

The president also vowed to shut the government down unless Congress approves money for his proposed wall along the U.S. border with Mexico.

"We're in for some choppy waters in September," said Sen. Chris Van Hollen, a Maryland Democrat on the Senate Appropriations Committee. "There has been very little — to my knowledge, there's been no discussion about the way forward."

But Harvey, at least, has turned down the volume of rhetoric from both parties — for now.

“The message the president would have for the members of Congress would be ‘let's get to work,’” White House spokeswoman Sarah Sanders said on Friday. “You've had a nice long break here, and we've got a lot of things to do.”

Given how little has been accomplished on legislation to fund the federal government, both Democrats and Republicans predict Congress will likely approve another stopgap spending measure to lock in current funding and push the deadline off. That approach tends to draw less political heat, though it would also limit Trump's ability to bring the kind of change to the government he promised during his campaign.

Republicans have expressed optimism that the various crises they face will be avoided, but GOP leaders have yet to lay out a plan for how they will move forward.

"We will get it done," said Rep. Andy Harris, a Baltimore County Republican who sits on the House Appropriations Committee and is a member of the conservative House Freedom Caucus. "We will not default on our debt and we will not have a government shutdown."

Harris, who has opposed disaster funding in the past, said he needs to review the Harvey legislation before deciding how to vote. The congressman blamed "dysfunction in the U.S. Senate" for the lack of progress addressing priorities this year.

Washington appeared to be headed toward a brutal fight just weeks ago. At a rally in Phoenix last month, Trump admonished Congress for not approving funding for his proposed border wall.

"Build that wall," Trump said. "Now the obstructionist Democrats would like us not to do it, but believe me, if we have to close down our government, we're building that wall."

Trump made a similar threat earlier this year, when Congress last faced a deadline to fund the government. The White House ultimately dropped the demand that the legislation include wall funding, and a coalition of Republicans and Democrats approved a bill in May that looked similar to spending measures that had been supported by the Obama administration.

J. David Cox, president of the American Federation of Government Employees, said the destruction wrought by Harvey underscores "the need for good government," and shows “the president is just wrong with his budget," in which Trump proposed slashing billions of dollars from federal agencies. Many of those responding to the disaster work for the government.

Still, Cox said, his members are taking Trump’s earlier threats seriously.

"Never before have we had a president threatening a shutdown when his own party is in control of Congress," he said.

The latest appropriations fight could have particular impact on Maryland, where some 300,000 people — roughly 10 percent of the state's civilian workforce — work for the federal government.

The Trump administration is hoping Congress will raise the nation's debt ceiling without drama. But several conservative Republicans, including Harris, believe the debt ceiling should be raised only if it comes with spending controls to reduce federal budget deficits. That could set up another showdown like those that took place in 2011 and 2013 — when lawmakers brought the government to the brink of defaulting on U.S. debt, leading Standard & Poor's to downgrade the nation’s credit rating for the first time.

Trump has further exposed rifts within his own party by engaging in a public spat with Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, who remains widely popular in the GOP despite the party’s spectacular failure in July to repeal the Affordable Care Act.

“Mitch, get back to work," Trump tweeted in early August.

With big-ticket items such as the debt ceiling in question, other legislative issues that would ordinarily receive considerable attention have gone almost unnoticed. The Children's Health Insurance Program, for instance, signed into law by President Bill Clinton in 1993, will expire at the end of September if Congress doesn’t act.

While CHIP has enjoyed bipartisan support, some Republicans want to use the program’s authorization to unwind portions of Obamacare. The Wall Street Journal, citing unnamed congressional aides, reported late last month that some Republicans want to use the CHIP legislation to repeal a medical device tax included in the Affordable Care Act.

Harris, a Johns Hopkins anesthesiologist, said he saw no reason why legislation to reauthorize the program could not be used to advance the president’s priorities on health care, such as allowing insurance carriers to sell coverage across state lines.

Others worry that injecting Obamacare into the debate could undermine a program that provided insurance to some 9 million children nationwide, including 138,000 in Maryland, at some point in 2016.

"It creates a level of uncertainty and fear on the part of individuals whose children are covered, putting vulnerable families in a pretty scary position," said Leni Preston, president of the advocacy group Consumer Health First. "The specter is out there, and that is not healthy for anybody."

Lawmakers also must decide by the end of the month whether to reauthorize the National Flood Insurance Program or reform it in some way. The program, which oversees 5 million policies nationwide, was $24 billion in debt even before Harvey made landfall.

Federal flood insurance had a significant impact in Maryland when Superstorm Sandy came ashore five years ago. Though the storm made landfall in New Jersey, it caused heavy flooding on the Eastern Shore.

The flood insurance program received more than 1,700 claims from Marylanders that fiscal year, according to the Federal Emergency Management Agency, and paid out more than $21 million.

In Crisfield, Md., one of the communities hit hardest, homes rebuilt with flood insurance money were raised above the flood plain. Noah T. Bradshaw, the city's housing inspector at the time, said he opposes some parts of the program, but it nevertheless put Crisfield back on its feet.

"These people would have had to walk away from their homes," Bradshaw said. "Now we're getting parks, more businesses — things are starting to happen again that might not have if we didn't have that influx of money."

john.fritze@baltsun.com

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