Thursday, August 2, 2018

August surprise: Congress does something -- Aug. 2, 2018 column


Headline writers wait years to write one like this -- “Not the Onion: Congress set to pass bills.”

The headline was on a Politico news story Wednesday reporting a circumstance so rare it seemed like satire.

The Congress is doing its job. In August. Even though it’s an election year. Make that because it’s an election year.

Congress traditionally flees the capital for the month, a holdover from the sweltering days before air conditioning and later when it became marginally more comfortable to stay in town.

In 1963, for example, the Senate actually worked from January to December with no break longer than a three-day weekend, according to a Senate history. Congress in 1970 mandated an annual summer break for itself.

The House is taking its typical August break, having begun a five-week recess and returning after Labor Day. The Senate was scheduled to leave Aug. 3 for four weeks, but Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., canceled most of it. The Senate is off next week, then expected back the rest of the month.

McConnell said the Senate needed to pass fiscal 2019 appropriations bills now instead of waiting until the last minute and lumping them into an omnibus package. President Donald Trump signed the last omnibus reluctantly and vowed not to sign another.
So Congress is actually getting some things done in August. 

On Wednesday, Congress sent Trump a $717 billion defense authorization bill for fiscal 2019, which starts Oct. 1, and he is expected to sign it. It includes a 2.6 percent military pay raise, the largest in nine years, and authorizes Trump’s military parade in November.

The House passed the same measure last week. It usually takes months of negotiations between House and Senate to work out differences in defense policy bills, but this one sailed through with bipartisan support. 

Also on Wednesday, the Senate passed a $154.2 billion spending package that combined four spending bills. It provides funding for interior and the environment, agriculture, transportation, housing, treasury and the federal courts. The measure goes back to the House for reconciliation with a similar bill it passed last month.

The Senate has passed seven of the 12 spending bills so far, which McConnell said was the most by early August in nearly 20 years. 

If this sounds like good government is bustin’ out all over, don’t get all dewy-eyed about it. Remember we’re talking about Washington. This is also about hard-edged politics. 

Republicans want to prove they deserve to retain Senate control, especially as their majority in the House is in jeopardy. Their big job is confirming Brett Kavanaugh as a Supreme Court justice.

By keeping senators in Washington, the crafty McConnell is also keeping off the campaign trail 10 Democratic incumbents in tough re-election fights in states Trump won. In contrast, only one Republican senator is running for re-election in a state won by Hillary Clinton. That’s Dean Heller of Nevada.

Congress can’t ignore the hyperactive tweet machine in the White House, but the GOP leadership is keeping its powder dry as Trump repeatedly threatens to shut down the federal government if he doesn’t get funding for his border wall with Mexico.

Trump reportedly agreed in a meeting last week with McConnell and House Speaker Paul Ryan, R-Wis., to delay until after the midterm elections a fight on spending for the wall. 

“I’m optimistic we can avoid a government shutdown,” McConnell said diplomatically.

But Trump sees a shutdown as a dandy political tool that would help him with his base in November. 

“I happen to think it would be a good thing to do it before” the midterms,” Trump told conservative radio host Rush Limbaugh Wednesday. “I happen to think it’s a great political thing because people want border security.”

Trump’s latest belligerence came as Republicans and Democrats are actually working together to pass the spending bills by the Sept. 30 deadline.

“The fly in the ointment here, of course, is the president, who keeps threatening,” said Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y. “Whenever he gets involved, he seems to mess it up.”

That was Not the Onion.

©2018 Marsha Mercer. All rights reserved.

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