Despite partisanship persistently boiling over on Capitol Hill, when Congress returned from summer recess in September, members hoped to tackle gun restrictions, escalating prescription drug prices, and a new trade agreement with Canada and Mexico.
Now, with the majority of political energy on both sides of the aisle focused on either executing or combatting an impeachment inquiry, that already ambitious agenda is wobbling on shaky legs and could soon be down for the count.
Congress is currently on a two-week break from Washington, D.C., for district work, and when they return Oct. 15 will have just 30 days in session remaining. The president will carry significant sway as a catalyst for moving bills along.
“A lot of focus in legislating comes from presidential leadership,” said Rebecca Eissler, San Francisco State University assistant professor of political science. “When the presidency is operating smoothly, the White House can focus attention, guide, and prioritize the legislative process. This administration has not been terribly focused on legislative efforts other than the tax cuts act and the attempt to repeal Obamacare.”
In late April, for example, Democrats and Republicans announced they had agreed on investing $2 trillion in infrastructure projects with more meetings to come to hash out details. Three weeks later, President Donald Trump nixed talks, apparently miffed about ongoing House investigations related to the Mueller report.
“I walked into the room and I told Sen. Schumer and Speaker Pelosi, ‘I want to do infrastructure’ … but we can’t do it under these circumstances,” he said during a Rose Garden press briefing in late May.
Democrats have indicated they are out to prove they can legislate and investigate simultaneously, while Republicans are painting impeachment as an unnecessary distraction from progress on key policies.
Mitch McConnell and Kevin McCarthy, the Senate majority leader and House minority leader, respectively, co-authored an op-ed published in the Wall Street Journal attacking House Democrats for using the trade pact with Mexico and Canada as a “political football” and being “more interested in picking fights with the White House than clinching bipartisan victories for America.”
If the 116th Congress closes the year without a legislative feather in its cap, little is likely to be accomplished prior to 2021. Come January, electioneering will kick into high gear, limiting the chances for a compromise that could hand one side a win in the eyes of the electorate.
“It’s not so much Congress is incapable of doing two things at once, but the environment for it is not there,” said Eric Schickler, co-director of the Institute of Governmental Studies at the University of California, Berkeley. “There are significant gaps between the two sides on the major issues, and there’s no track record in the last couple years of closing those types of deals … What’s different now is the intensity of partisanship is so much stronger.”
Here’s what to watch out for in Congress during the final quarter of 2019.
Outside of marquee items like prescription drug prices and the trade accord, Congress still has to agree on a federal spending bill for fiscal year 2020.
In September, they kicked the hard decisions, such as money for Trump’s border wall, down the road to Nov. 21 with a stopgap measure.
Even though there was agreement over the summer on suspending the debt limit until after the 2020 election and some other budget generalities, many points of contention remain.
United States-Mexico-Canada Agreement
If any major legislation emerges from the partisan quagmire it will most likely be the United States-Mexico-Canada Agreement (USMCA), most pundits agree. All sides support a deal, but Democrats are working on a series of changes they would like to see before a full vote, including greater environmental and labor protections.
At an Oct. 2 press conference, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi said the impeachment inquiry and passing bills like the USMCA “have nothing to do with each other.”
“The president has said he wants this U.S.-Mexico-Canada trade agreement to go forward, and we are waiting on the language on enforceability. Does it mean he can’t do that? That’s really up to him,” she said.
U.S. Trade Representative Robert Lighthizer said work was being done on the Democrats concerns, and he was still confident the USMCA would come up for a vote and pass, adding that “if it did not pass it would be a catastrophe for our economy.”
Prescription Drug Prices
Trump has spoken a great deal about controlling the price of prescription drugs, and House Democrat aides are rumored to be at work on their own prescription drug plan that would allow the federal government to negotiate prices with pharmaceutical companies.
The Senate is a different story, however, where a bipartisan bill introduced by Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) and Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) earlier this year gained little traction with other Senate Republicans. It is worth noting the McConnell/McCarthy op-ed homed in on the trade deal above all other potential legislation, never mentioning drug pricing—a bipartisan issue among voters but not one many GOP senators are eager to approach.
Trump, for his part, suggested in Oct. 3 remarks during the roll out of an executive order on Medicare that lobbyists from pharmaceutical companies and other special interests were influencing the impeachment inquiry.
“I would be very surprised if the hoax didn’t come a little bit from the people that we’re taking on,” he said referring to the impeachment probe. “I wouldn’t be surprised if it was from some of these industries that we take on, like pharma.”
Even with momentum for new regulations on firearms coming into the fall session after a series of summer mass shootings, agreement between the House, Senate, and White House was a long shot.
The House has passed a bill expanding federal background checks that also encourages states to create “red flag” laws permitting police to temporarily seize weapons from those judged to pose a threat. McConnell has said he is reluctant to bring any gun bills to the Senate floor that do not have the explicit support of the president.
Trump has vacillated on which specific policies he would back, most recently suggesting he favors some version of red-flag laws rather than enhanced background checks. It is still possible the White House will release its own proposal to prompt the Senate to take up the issue.
Impeachment = Re-entrenchment
Gridlock, especially if impeachment proceedings fizzle out, could benefit Republicans if they can paint Democrats as obstructionists who will resort to anything to grind government to a halt.
Meanwhile, Democrats express a desire to move legislation forward on several issues but may be ultimately unwilling to hand any perceived victory to the White House. Freshmen Democrats, who ran midterm platforms of resisting Trump as well as bringing home concrete benefits for their constituencies, may push harder for some true legislative victories to campaign on in 2020, Eissler said.
Still, most political observers point out, even prior to impeachment, the historically high levels of partisanship made any major legislative accomplishments doubtful.
“During the Clinton reelection period in ‘96 you had a divided government and some pretty heated battles, but the House Republicans and Clinton agreed to a series of deals that helped House Republicans have something to run on and helped Clinton get reelected,” Schickler said. “It doesn’t seem likely that dynamic is going to show up here.”
More must-read stories from Fortune:
—How the circumstances around Donald Trump’s impeachment inquiry differ from Bill Clinton’s
—Fact checking Trump’s claims during one of the most chaotic weeks in his presidency
—Why an end to the U.S.-China trade war could be close
—Higher U.S.-international postal rates loom before Christmas
—Can Andrew Yang win in 2020? Inside his unorthodox campaign
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