The September Bottleneck: What it is and What it means

The House and Senate have left town for a summer break leaving a full agenda for the month of September. With only 12 working days next month, the Congressional to-do list includes several high stakes bills with difficult political terrain to navigate.

Here’s what’s ahead:

1. The Debt Ceiling: The federal government will run out of authority to borrow money in late September. Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin has asked Congress to raise the debt limit by September 29. Without action, the United States government will default on its debt for the first time in history and throw worldwide financial markets into turmoil. Given the high stakes, congressional and administration leaders agree that there must be action.

The problem: Members of Congress, particularly Republican Members of Congress, don’t like to vote for a debt increase without “sweeteners,” like extra provisions that make the bill more attractive. Republicans are demanding that some spending cuts be attached to the debt limit package, but that won’t garner support with Democrats. And Democrats are unenthusiastic about supporting the measure if Republicans plan to use the increased borrowing authority to pass sharp tax cuts for large corporations and the wealthy. So far negotiations to find a path forward have stalled.

2. Funding the Federal Government. In addition to the debt ceiling, Congress needs to pass legislation to fund individual federal agencies by September 30. Without this legislation, we could see a full or partial shutdown of government functions.

The problem: These funding bills require 60 votes in the Senate, which means that some Democrats will have to go along. The White House is pushing controversial funding cuts for many key programs on top of demanding new funding for items like the border wall. This approach is unlikely to attract Democratic support and so far there are few signs of compromise.

3. The Secretary of Homeland Security. General John Kelly served as Secretary of Homeland Security for the first six months of the administration before becoming President Trump’s Chief of Staff. Now a new Secretary will need to be named and confirmed by the Senate.

The problem: The Department of Homeland Security has become a lightning rod of controversy over its hard ball immigration tactics on deportation and border security. That means the Senate confirmation process is likely to be drawn out, but inevitably the President will see his choice for the new DHS secretary confirmed and installed.

In addition to these problematic issues, the President has called on the Senate to vote again on a health care package. While it is unlikely that we’ll see another vote on this issue in September, Presidential prodding could muddy the waters. The Senate is also hoping to consider the Defense Authorization bill right after Labor Day, while balancing several other authorizations that are set to expire. For example, the authorizations for the Federal Aviation Administration, the Coast Guard and the Children’s Health Insurance Program all expire in September and will weigh heavily on Senators coming back from their recess. Without an extension, these operations and programs will have to shut down.

So the bottleneck is clear. Too many bills, not enough time. So what is the likely outcome?

The issues that can be deferred will be. Don’t be surprised to see temporary extensions of funding or authorizations to give Congress time to process the backlog.

Other issues will have to wait. While many Republicans are eager to move on to a debate on tax reform, that issue will have to be put on hold until some of these more time sensitive items, like the debt ceiling, get resolved.

With all of these issues lined up for what will be a short September, it’s hard to imagine second tier issues – like the energy package or infrastructure – will get congressional attention until late 2017 at the earliest.

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