McConnell, Pelosi, Trump likely to address guns as Congress returns
WASHINGTON – Members of Congress have had a long six weeks away from the nation’s capital but they’re coming back on Monday and there’s a lot on their collective plate.
Quite a lot has happened over the month of August, which has changed the legislative priorities in Washington. When senators and representatives were in recess, numerous mass shootings heightened the stakes for tackling gun violence. And still, the clock ticks on lingering priorities, such as a vote on a new North American trade deal and keeping the government from another shutdown.
Here are some of the issues you can expect to hear about as Congress comes back to D.C.
There have been four high-profile mass shootings since the House left for recess and three since the Senate left.
The most recent, a shooting spree in the area of Midland-Odessa area of Texas, left at least seven dead on Aug. 31. That shooting followed back-to-back-to-back massacres in Gilroy, Calif., El Paso, Texas, and Dayton, Ohio. The four shootings left a total of 43 people dead and many more injured.
The Democratic-led House is expected to focus on the issue, holding news conferences, a forum and floor speeches in an attempt to pressure the Senate to take up gun-control measures that have already passed the House. House leaders have been most vocal about a bill on background checks that passed the Democratic-controlled House earlier this year.
The House Judiciary Committee has a hearing scheduled later this month on assault weapons. The panel is also expected to hold a meeting this week on a trio of measures. One would prevent those convicted of misdemeanor hate crimes from being eligible to purchase firearms, another entices states to create “red flag” programs and a third bans high-capacity magazines. The bills could come up for a vote in the coming weeks.
But, the Senate isn’t expected to take up any of these measures and has instead been discussing alternatives, including legislation addressing mental health, video games and a proposal that would provide grants to states that create “red-flag” programs. Politico reported Thursday that a variety of proposals were being considered by the White House, including the death penalty for mass shooters, allowing more records for background checks and tougher penalties for so-called straw purchasers, those who buy weapons for people who aren’t legally allowed to have a gun.
At the forefront of the discussions are Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., and President Donald Trump, as House Speaker Nancy Pelosi urges them both to pass the House-passed measures.
McConnell has maintained a noncommittal stance on the future of any gun-control legislation, explaining that he is looking to President Donald Trump, who appeared to support expanding checks but has since gone back and forth on the issue, on what sort of legislation the administration could support.
It has been 10 months since the top leaders of U.S., Mexico and Canada signed off on a new North American trade deal, and Republicans — along with even some Democrats — are growing restless to ratify the deal.
Supporters on Capitol Hill are hopeful the United States–Mexico–Canada Agreement, known as USMCA, could come up for a vote in the fall but House Democrats are still working with the administration on a number of concerns, including enforcement mechanisms and labor standards.
The clock is ticking and the chances of the deal passing Congress in 2020, a sensitive election year, will drop significantly. There’s also the possibility of Trump withdrawing from NAFTA without a new deal in place — something he has threatened as a way to get Congress to move on the agreement.
The deal, which would replace the Clinton-era North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), has been a priority for Trump and would fulfill one of his campaign promises. But it’s still up in the air whether Congress will ratify it.
The governments of Mexico, Canada and the U.S. must ratify the agreement in order for it to take effect. So far Mexico has done so and Canada has started the process but has yet to ratify the deal.
Some House Democrats, including freshmen who flipped districts in the 2018 election, are hoping to OK the agreement before having to defend their seats in the upcoming cycle.
Keeping the government open
The clock is ticking and another government shutdown could be on the horizon if Congress doesn’t pass its 12 annual spending bills by the end of September.
While the House has approved a majority of the bills, the Senate plans to start examining them this upcoming week — leaving little time for both chambers to come to agreements before the new fiscal year starts in October.
House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer announced in a letter Thursday to fellow Democrats that the House would take up a stopgap spending bill, which would continue current levels of funding without adjustments for a short period of time and prevent a government shutdown.
But it’s unclear whether the Republican-held Senate and the president will be receptive of the stopgap measure and — should it pass – what will happen once the measure expires, which would likely happen in November or December.
Earlier this year, the major sticking point that led to a 35-day government shutdown, the longest on record, was over funding for Trump’s border wall — something that will certainly be an issue going into these spending negotiations. The Trump administration’s reprogramming of money to help border enforcement and the construction of a barrier along the southern U.S. border is likely to be a factor in budget discussions this time around.
The administration announced Tuesday that it took $3.6 billion from military construction projects to fund the effort, drawing criticism from both sides of the aisle. Over the year, the administration has also reprogrammed funds from the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) for Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), which Congress also did not approve.
Some on Capitol Hill say Democrats could examine measures to combat this, though it’s unclear what options they will have.
The drumbeat continues to intensify in the House to impeach Trump, but it’s not clear yet whether the entire chamber will march to that tune.
A majority of House Democrats have now called for a formal impeachment inquiry, a list that grew over the summer recess. But leadership has continued to resist such calls and instead point to the ongoing investigations in multiple congressional committees and the series of lawsuits that aim to uncover new information, as both a check on the president and possibly damaging to him politically.
But after months resisting the launch of an impeachment inquiry, House Judiciary Committee Chairman Jerry Nadler told CNN in August the House was already in the midst of “formal impeachment proceedings.”
Congress would likely have to take the matter up by the end of the year, before the 2020 election cycle really starts to heat up.
The Judiciary Committee has scheduled a hearing in September with Trump’s former campaign manager Corey Lewandowski and former White House aides. At any time, federal courts could also order the release of secret grand-jury evidence from former special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation of Russian interference in the 2016 election.
Drug pricing is something both Republicans and Democrats appear to see eye-to-eye on and both sides are racing to come up with solutions that could pass both chambers before the end of the year – and the start of the real 2020 election season.
Pelosi has been working on legislation, which has yet to be finalized, that aims to appeal to both moderates, eager to accomplish a key campaign promise in the 2018 midterms, and progressives, who are pushing for more sweeping change to hold companies accountable and significantly lower prices.
Broadly, a main point of contention is over allowing a third party to help in setting prices and negotiating with pharmaceutical companies. Pelosi has floated allowing the Government Accountability Office to decide prices of certain drugs if an agreement can’t be reached with Health and Human Services, Politico reports. Whereas another proposal, which is supported by progressives, would allow other companies to produce the medication as a generic product if a company doesn’t negotiate in good faith.
There also is legislation addressing drug pricing moving through the Senate but it’s unclear if House Democrats will be able to find a compromise to appease both Senate Republicans and the progressive faction of the House to get a measure passed.
Contributing: Bart Jansen