The Lame Duck – What Lies Ahead

By: David Adams and Kevin McLaughlin

When the House jetted for the campaign trail after passing the Continuing Resolution (CR) earlier this fall, it left in its wake seven appropriations bills to finish before December 7. But when Congress reconvenes after the mid-term election, it’s safe to say that appropriations will take a backseat to party and politics.

Election 2.0 

While most people are closely following the mid-term elections, many current members of Congress are already jockeying for the next election – the races for party leadership. Republicans have said that their first days back in Washington will be spent assessing the election results and determining their new leadership as many of those currently at the helm, including Speaker Paul Ryan (R-WI) and Republican Whip John Cornyn (R-TX), are retiring or term-limited. The latest thinking is that Rep. Kevin McCarthy (R-CA) will run for speaker and Rep. Steve Scalise (R-LA) will vie for majority leader. While Rep. Patrick McHenry (R-NC) had been considered the strong frontrunner for whip, Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers (R-WA) recently announced her interest in the seat. Meanwhile, rumors are flying that current House Republican leadership members are teaming up with the Freedom Caucus to line up votes. But as with all rumors, these should be taken with a grain of salt. The big question is where will the surviving moderates toss their votes in this leadership battle? House Republican leadership elections are reported to be on November 14 – just a week after the mid-terms.  

House Democrats will be equally preoccupied. Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) has made it clear that she wants to be speaker of the House if the Democrats take control or remain as the Democratic leader if they fail to flip the House. But she will face an uphill battle. More than 50 Democratic candidates have said they will either not support Rep. Pelosi if they are elected/re-elected or that “new” or “appropriate” leadership is necessary. This raises the possibility that, while Rep. Pelosi may be the choice of the majority of the Democratic Caucus, she may not get 218 votes when January 3, 2019, rolls around.

Rep. Steny Hoyer (D-MD), the current Democratic whip, recently made it clear that he would run for Speaker if Rep. Pelosi falls short of the necessary votes. Separately, Assistant Democratic Leader Jim Clyburn (D-SC) has also made clear his interest in the job. At the moment – without any clear challengers – it is hard to see how the current leadership team isn’t re-elected if Democrats reclaim the House. However, should they fall short, look for wholesale changes at the top of the party.

On the Senate side, few changes are expected within Democratic leadership although the Democratic Caucus could get restless if Democrats fare more poorly than expected. On the Republican side, Sen. John Cornyn (R-TX) is term-limited and will be out of the whip’s office come January. Sen. John Thune (R-SD) is his presumed replacement but keep an eye on Sens. Roy Blunt (R-MO) and John Barasso (R-WY) who are both are rumored to be eyeing a run for whip under the right circumstances.

Business (Not) as Usual 

Amid leadership drama, Congress faces a stacked legislative agenda to finish out the 115th Congress. If House Democrats do well on November 6, look for a concerted effort to resist Republican attempts to push through their agenda before relinquishing their gavels. Under this scenario, House Republicans will closely coordinate with their colleagues in the Senate to address policy priorities – theirs and President Trump’s – that would not see the light of day in a divided Congress.

Appropriations – the seven remaining bills – will be up first. This has Republicans and Democrats are gearing up for a fight, particularly over border wall funding. Congressional Republicans have made it clear in recent days that they intend to fight for this funding. President Trump had repeatedly raised the specter of a government shutdown earlier this year but backed off that threat in advance of the election. Brinksmanship will be the order of the day in the run up to December 7.

Other key legislation on the “to-do list” includes:

  • The 2018 Farm Bill which is in conference. While most think the hold-up is over Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) benefits, the real hold-up is where the agriculture subsidies will go.
  • A package of tax extenders and technical corrections will be on the table; whether it gets over the finish line will be driven by post-election maneuvering.
  • The National Flood Insurance Program (NFIP) is set to expire on November 30 and needs a reauthorization or an extension. There are key members pushing to see the NFIP addressed in the lame duck but with all the election uncertainty, how the NFIP is addressed remains in question.
  • The Violence Against Women Act (VAWA) reauthorization was tied to the CR and extended until December 7. While action on this bill is on the priority list of both sides of the aisle, the solution may be another short-term extension unless agreement is reached on changes to VAWA – some of which are quite contentious. 

In the Senate, look for Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) to continue his push to confirm as many nominees as possible. In fact, he has already teed up a cloture vote on a nominee for the Federal Reserve Board of Governors the week after the election and other nominations will likely follow. Democrats will continue to stretch this process out and use the narrow margin in the Senate during negotiations on appropriations bills to leverage as much spending as possible on remaining Democratic priorities. Sen. McConnell filed cloture on the Coast Guard Reauthorization, which will be the Senate’s first post-election vote on November 13.

Some things will slip to the next Congress. For instance, even though the Joint Select Committee on Solvency of Multiemployer Pension Plans is scheduled to issue its report on November 30, work on the resulting legislative proposal is not expected until next year. Similarly, while President Trump is expected to sign the United States-Mexico-Canada Agreement (USMCA) in November on the sidelines of the G-20 meeting – right at the end of Mexican President Pena Nieto’s term – that will not leave enough time for the current Congress to consider implementing legislation. Finally, while the Highly Autonomous Vehicle (HAV) legislation passed the House this Congress, Senate action may slip until the next Congress given outstanding issues related to liability and safety that have bogged down the bill’s progress in the upper chamber.

Far from a Lame Ending

There is a great deal left on the plate of the 115th Congress and little time to wipe it clean. Compounding this tight timeline is the outcome of the mid-terms – a key factor in determining what and how much gets done before Congress adjourns sine die. Within this heightened congressional atmosphere exists opportunity and a number of challenges. From leadership elections to appropriations, the bi-partisan policy team of Cogent Strategies is here to provide clients with valuable, real-time insights as to how the busy lame duck agenda will affect their unique legislative priorities during the remainder of this Congress and into the next.  

David Adams has nearly three decades of experience on the Hill and with the US Department of State. Over the course of his career, David has served as a trusted adviser to both congressional leadership and former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and earned the respect of the decision-makers who matter most. For David’s complete bio, click here

Kevin McLaughlin is a veteran GOP political strategist with a proven track record of success and serves as one of the firm’s primary liaisons for outreach to Senate Republicans. Kevin joined the firm after an epic four-year run at the National Republican Senatorial Committee (NRSC). For Kevin’s complete bio, click here.