The House’s legislative wheels are kicking into high gear this week.
After four months of mostly sleepy floor activity — not counting the protracted fiscal 2018 spending fight that led to two partial government shutdowns and a few other bills, like a reauthorization of the Federal Aviation Administration — the House has enough major legislation coming out of its committees to fill the floor schedule for the next two to three months.
“It’s the culture that we want to have that you should be productive, we should do work and we just need to continue to work hard,” House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy said. “We can always improve.”
Coincidentally — or maybe not — the next few months is the remaining time period Congress realistically has to be productive before lawmakers’ focus fully shifts toward their re-election campaigns.
Atop the House’s to-do list is the farm bill, which, in addition to agriculture policy programs, includes an overhaul to the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, also known as food stamps. The measure would impose stricter work requirements for able-bodied adults seeking SNAP benefits and create new job training programs designed to help get people off government assistance and into the workforce.
Speaker Paul D. Ryan sees those policies as key to delivering on the GOP’s promise to overhaul welfare programs, the only plank of House Republicans’ 2016 “A Better Way” agenda that has yet to see legislative action.
“This is about giving Americans the right incentives and the right skills to get into the labor force. … This is the perfect time to do this in this kind of an economy,” the Wisconsin Republican said during his weekly press conference Thursday. “Of course, there’s a whole lot more that’s happening here in the House.”
While lots of things happening in the House has been a frequent talking point of Ryan’s — even through periods of legislative slog — he is not overstating it now.
The farm bill will be on the floor this week, along with a bill to overhaul the Department of Veterans Affairs. The VA measure includes funding to keep the Veterans Choice Program — which provides veterans access to private health care alternatives — running until the community care programs the bill would create are fully implemented. VA Choice funding is expected to run out by the end of the month.
Next week the House will consider the National Defense Authorization Act, an annual measure Republicans will tout as a continuation of their efforts to rebuild the military.
Also before the one-week Memorial Day recess, the House is expected to take up the administration’s $15 billion rescissions request, which seeks to claw back authorized and unspent federal funding.
In June the House will spend at least a week processing dozens of bills designed to help combat the opioid epidemic and will likely begin moving fiscal 2019 appropriations measures.
Watch: Which House Races Are the Parties Targeting? Look to the Money, the TV Ad Money
‘Ready to be busy’
“I’m ready to be busy, ready to get our message out, ready to vote on what we stand for,” Rep. Roger Williams said of the upcoming floor schedule.
The Texas Republican said it’s normal for Congress to be busy this time of year, especially with measures that move annually, like the defense authorization and appropriations bills. But since it’s an election year, this is also the time for lawmakers to push major legislation through, because by the end of June most people will turn their attention to campaigns, he said.
“I hope that the motive is pure enough that it’s focused on getting our work done, but I would be remiss and disingenuous if I didn’t say that you’ve got to think from a strategic standpoint,” Republican Study Committee Chairman Mark Walker said. “We’re thrilled with tax reform, and if you’re on the Senate side I guess you’re still thrilled with Neil Gorsuch, but there’s more work to be done.”
There’s value in spending the last few months before the November midterms being productive, the North Carolina Republican added.
“But that shouldn’t be our key motivating strategy,” Walker said. “It’s got to be, ‘This is something we promised the American people; let’s deliver.’”
National Republican Congressional Committee Chairman Steve Stivers said the busy legislative schedule helps the GOP’s campaign message.
“We’re solving problems that the American people face,” the Ohio Republican said. “There’s always more to do, but we’ve got an agenda that matters to people.”
Other legislative items
In addition to the aforementioned legislation, other bills are expected to make it to the floor in the next few months, like biennial legislation authorizing water infrastructure projects.
A bill to overhaul the prison system and reduce recidivism rates could also advance out of the House by early June.
“If we get it on suspension, we might be able to do it before Memorial Day,” said Georgia GOP Rep. Doug Collins, one of the bill’s authors, referring to the fast-track process that requires two-thirds support for passage.
House GOP leaders are also planning in the coming weeks to move a banking overhaul bill the Senate passed in March now that Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell has agreed to schedule a vote on a package of House-passed capital formation measures.
Even though there’s plenty of legislation ready to come to the House floor, there are more bills rank-and-file members want to see added to the agenda.
“I still think immigration has got to be part of this somehow,” Walker said. “We have both houses. It’s incumbent upon us to figure out a solution. And I think that needs to be in.”
House GOP leaders are facing pressure from all corners of their conference to bring an immigration bill to the floor to provide protections for recipients of the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program and other so-called Dreamers, undocumented immigrants brought to the United States as children. But rank-and-file members want different outcomes.
Watch: Ryan Talks DACA Solution, Pelosi Says Iran Deal Withdrawal ‘Dangerous’
A group of moderate Republicans, led by Reps Carlos Curbelo of Florida and Jeff Denham of California, has filed a discharge petition to force a vote on a “queen of the hill” rule that would set up votes on four immigration bills. It has 17 Republican signatures. Only eight more would be needed to force a vote if all Democrats sign on as well, but the earliest that vote could occur is June 25.
GOP leaders oppose the discharge petition, which would all but guarantee passage of a bipartisan bill that lacks the support of a majority of House Republicans and President Donald Trump.
“Going down a path and having some kind of a spectacle on the floor that just results in a veto doesn’t solve a problem,” Ryan said, stressing the importance of finding a bill that Trump and “some Democrats” can support.
“If we’re going to spend time on the floor, let’s spend that precious time on the floor passing legislation that we know can get signed into law,” the Wisconsin Republican said.
Republican leaders are also working to fend off possible legislative distractions related to the special counsel’s Russia investigation.
Some House Republicans are frustrated with the Justice Department for not responding quickly enough to — or deliberately stonewalling, according to some members — congressional oversight requests for documents related to the investigation. They feel there’s a case to be made for holding Attorney General Jeff Sessions or Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein in contempt of Congress. Some conservatives have even considered drafting an impeachment resolution against Rosenstein.
GOP leaders have walked a fine line on the matter, touting the importance of the document requests but not echoing calls for contempt or impeachment resolutions that would eat valuable floor time and distract from the policy agenda they’re trying to promote.
Two of the committee chairmen who have outstanding document requests, Intelligence Chairman Devin Nunes of California and Oversight and Government Reform Chairman Trey Gowdy of South Carolina, reportedly met with DOJ officials last week to try to reach an agreement.
If an acceptable compromise is not found and talk of contempt or impeachment resolutions continues or such measures reach the floor, it would likely both help and hurt Republicans as they head into the midterms.
“It’s a little of both probably,” Stivers said. “It gets both bases excited.”