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Hunt is on for legislative train as riders get in line

Legislative items are piling up, and some worry it will be September before a budget and debt ceiling deal is reached

Perdue arrives in the Capitol for Senate policy luncheons. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call file photo)
Perdue arrives in the Capitol for Senate policy luncheons. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call file photo)

Urgent legislative items are piling up in search of a fast-moving vehicle, including food assistance for Puerto Rico residents, aid to crop growers in southeastern states hurt by last year’s hurricanes, and compensation for victims of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.

The hunt got a little more desperate Tuesday after the Congressional Budget Office estimated lawmakers may have even more time than they thought to tackle the statutory debt ceiling. While the nation’s borrowing cap roars back to life at roughly $22 trillion on Saturday, the CBO says Treasury accounting moves will generate enough “headroom” to remain under the ceiling until late September or early October.

That timeframe is slightly more optimistic than private sector forecasters, who have been projecting a late summer deadline for Treasury’s cash to run out. “I still think we could run out of room just before Labor Day,” Wrightson ICAP chief economist Lou Crandall told CQ. But he added it was “not inconceivable” that Treasury could make it to Oct. 1, dependent on April tax receipts.

If the CBO is correct, then lawmakers could wait until September to make a mega deal averting a partial government shutdown at the end of that month as well as potentially catastrophic default on U.S. obligations. But that would risk the same sort of last-minute brinksmanship that rattled financial markets and the U.S. economy in previous years, which Capitol Hill leaders have pledged to avoid.

Getting a deal sooner would also allow for quicker movement on a “must-pass” vehicle for items such as disaster aid and 9/11-related compensation, as well as various other add-ons that missed the cut earlier this month on the fiscal 2019 omnibus spending law. Such items include a package of 26 lapsed tax breaks that individuals and companies are missing out on when filing their returns this year, authority for EPA to collect fees that finance approval of pesticide registrations, and more.

Bipartisan support

There’s little controversy around the intent of the aid to disaster victims or families of those killed on Sept. 11, or injured in the rescue effort immediately after the attacks. Nor is there much partisan dispute over the tax “extenders.”

The chief issue is a familiar one: cost.

Georgia GOP Sens. David Perdue and Johnny Isakson, with support from other Republicans and Democrat Doug Jones of Alabama, unveiled a $13.6 billion disaster aid supplemental on Tuesday. The Georgia senators’ main focus has been a $3.8 billion agricultural assistance component, mainly to compensate for loss of crops, trees, bushes and vines stemming from Hurricanes Michael and Florence and other 2018 disasters, as well as peach and blueberry crop losses due to a 2017 freeze.

Senate Republicans included the agricultural assistance in a $12.8 billion disaster aid supplemental they introduced last month; House Democrats would top that with a $14.2 billion alternative that passed that chamber and increases the agricultural component to $4.4 billion. Without reimbursement for crop losses, farmers could have trouble lining up their finances for the oncoming spring planting season.

Similarly, momentum is building on both sides of the Capitol to include $600 million for food assistance to Puerto Ricans facing a “March cliff” when nutrition benefits are scheduled to be cut by about one-third for some 1.3 million residents, with 100,000 more being cut off entirely, according to territory officials.

The Trump administration opposed the food aid in the House-passed supplemental, calling the funds “excessive and unnecessary” in an official statement. But the Puerto Rico money is included in the Georgians’ new bill, and in their press release Perdue, Isakson and other sponsors said President Donald Trump has confirmed his support of their package.

Sept. 11 victims’ fund

The 9/11 victim’s compensation fund effort stems from the fact that Congress didn’t appropriate enough to ensure all eligible claimants can receive full payouts, which are authorized through Dec. 31, 2020. Fund officials issued a status report Feb. 15 — the same day the fiscal 2019 omnibus was signed into law — noting that there was only $2.3 billion left in the kitty.

That’s over $4.5 billion short of what officials believe is necessary based on recent trends to pay full benefits, plus meet administrative costs to run the program. Congress reauthorized the program and provided additional funds in late 2015, but the CBO underestimated how many potential beneficiaries would be diagnosed with 9/11-related cancers. Without a new cash infusion, the fund said starting this week it would cut payouts by 50 percent for those submitting claims by Feb. 1, and by 70 percent for those filing new claims after that date.

Fund backers want to extend the program for decades and make the benefits mandatory, or on-demand based on need. So far there are only two announced Republican supporters in the Senate: Cory Gardner of Colorado and Lisa Murkowski of Alaska. But Senate Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer, D-N.Y., assured supporters at a news conference Monday that “we can get this done.”

New Yorkers believe they might be able to appeal to Trump’s roots in Queens and Manhattan to push new funding through, but how and whether a short- or long-term funding extension is paid for remains an open question. And presidential politics could play a role, as Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, D-N.Y., a candidate for her party’s nomination to take on Trump, is the lead sponsor.

Meanwhile the expired tax breaks, which could cost somewhere in the ballpark of $14 billion just to renew for the 2018 tax year, are still in limbo, causing heartburn for interests ranging from short-line railroad operators and biodiesel producers to homeowners losing their deduction for mortgage insurance premiums.

“Our caucus is interested in finding some common ground on extenders,” Senate Finance Committee ranking member Ron Wyden, D-Ore., said Monday. But he acknowledged that pay-as-you-go budget rules are an obstacle to early passage.

At the same time, appropriators are still holding out hope that the next legislative package will carry language lifting austere spending caps set to return for fiscal 2020, slicing about 10 percent below the spending bills Trump signed into law for this year.

Trump’s acting budget director, Russ Vought, wrote in an op-ed Monday that his administration plans to propose cutting nondefense funds by 5 percent while evading budget caps for defense by using the off-budget Overseas Contingency Operations designation.

But Rep. Tom Cole, R-Okla., a senior appropriator, disputed that the president can sit back and wait for Democratic leaders to agree to his terms. If they can’t reach agreement, then Trump won’t get anywhere close to the $750 billion he wants for military programs, Cole argued.

“He does have an incentive [to strike a deal], because otherwise you’re going to get across-the-board cuts in the military . . . that should give everybody incentive enough,” Cole said. “And the idea that the Democrats are going to accept — I’d be delighted if they would accept everything we want to do in defense and then accept 5 percent cuts everywhere else, but something tells me that’s not exactly what they’re going to do.”

Paul M. Krawzak and Jennifer Shutt contributed to this report.