What to Expect as Congress Heads Back to Washington

Members of Congress returned to Washington yesterday after a month long August recess and there is a long agenda on the docket, but their first priority will be to pass a budget bill that will fund the government for fiscal year 2018. If they do not pass a budget bill by September 30, the federal government will shut down on October 1.

It is likely that if they cannot come to an agreement on the 2018 fiscal year budget, they will do as they’ve done in previous years and pass a bill, known as a continuing resolution, which funds the government through December, at which point they would have to start the budget agreement process all over again.

But many GOP lawmakers are looking to rebound from their failure to repeal and replace the Affordable Care Act by racking up legislative wins this fall. Since Republicans have control of both the Congress and the White House, they are expected to try to move forward on initiatives they have long touted as priorities.

However, it is almost guaranteed that they will also have to take a vote on raising the debt ceiling in order to fund some of these initiatives, a vote that many members of the conservative House Freedom Caucus would likely object to. If the debt ceiling is not raised by September 29, the Treasury Department warns that the government will reach its debt limit and default on its debt, leading to a mass destabilization of financial markets.

While it is not yet clear what the final budget bill will look like, President Trump released a budget proposal in May that outlined a number of controversial plans. The proposal seeks to defund Planned Parenthood by barring them from receiving Medicaid reimbursements or Title X funding. It would also eliminate federally subsidized student loans, purge more than $700 million from the Perkins loan program, end the public service loan forgiveness program, and cut funding for college-work study programs in half.

He also proposed cutting the nutritional assistance program by 25 percent and narrowing eligibility for food assistance through SNAP. Cuts to these programs are dangerous, as 12.7 percent of children and adults in the United States in 2015 did not have consistent access to the amount of food necessary to sustain a healthy diet, which numbers out to around 15.8 million households. In addition, five percent of Americans or 6.3 million households could be described as having very low food security.

In addition, Trump’s budget proposal would make it more difficult for people to access social security benefits, and cut $63 billion in retirement benefits to federal workers. As expected, the plan also offers significant budget cuts to the Labor Department, the Environmental Protection Agency, the Education Department, and the State Department.

Of course, Trump’s budget allocates $2.6 billion for border security, including $1.6 billion for the border wall with Mexico. Experts say that not only would the wall be ineffective, but $1.6 billion would not even begin to cover the costly project, which would likely run into the tens of billions of dollars. However, Trump has promised to shut down the entire federal government if the budget bill does not set aside funding for the border wall.

While Congress might be able to delay fights over the border wall and Planned Parenthood, they will have to immediately allocate more funding to the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) before their funding runs dry at the end of September, though some Republicans in the House have pushed to privatize the agency.

Congress will also have to immediately extend funding for the Children’s Health Insurance Program (CHIP), which is set to run out of money at the beginning of October. CHIP funds health insurance for approximately 9 million children across the country whose parents make too much money to qualify for Medicaid, but not enough money to afford private health insurance. Trump’s budget proposal called for cutting $5.8 billion out of the program over the next ten years and capping children’s eligibility to qualify for healthcare.

After a budget is passed, the Senate is expected to use the budget reconciliation process to overhaul the tax code and create a plan that is more favorable for the wealthy and corporations. The budget reconciliation process would allow the Senate to pass a tax bill with only 51% of the vote, instead of the 60 votes typically required of fiscal measures, therefore allowing the 52 Senate Republicans to exclude Democrats from negotiations.

A major reason Republicans wanted to force the healthcare bill through before September was so they would have the necessary spending cuts to fund the tax break for the wealthy. Eleanor Smeal, President of the Feminist Majority Foundation, said in a statement, “Just like the House version, the Senate bill has almost nothing to do with healthcare, but is instead concerned with syphoning off enough money from Medicaid to give a massive tax break to the wealthiest 1% of Americans. This bill disgracefully places Medicaid on the chopping block, along with 74 million people who rely on its services, two-thirds of whom are women.”

But the fight over healthcare may not be over yet, as the President spent the August recess encouraging Congress to continue working to repeal and replace the Affordable Care Act when they returned to Washington. Senate Majority Leader McConnell is open to considering a new healthcare bill, but many on Capitol Hill are also urging a bi-partisan solution that would stabilize the insurance markets. Many fear that President Trump and Secretary of Health and Human Services Tom Price will allow the private insurance marketplace to implode if Congress does not step in.

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Media Resources: CBS News Feminist Newswire 6/1/17, 5/23/17, 9/12/16, 6/22/17;

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