Congress returns, faces pressing issues including Harvey aid

The Capitol is seen at as Congress returns from the August recess to face work on immigration, the debt limit, funding the government, and help for victims of Hurricane Harvey, in Washington, Tuesday, Sept. 5, 2017. (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite)

WASHINGTON (AP) — Lawmakers returned to Washington Tuesday facing fast-approaching deadlines, including pressing demands to replenish dwindling disaster aid reserves as Texas and Louisiana dig out from Harvey and an even more powerful hurricane, Irma, bears down on the U.S.

Must-do measures also include lifting the government’s debt limit and preventing a government shutdown at the end of the month. Republican leaders head to the White House later Tuesday to meet with President Donald Trump on another top priority: Rewriting the U.S. tax code in hopes of boosting the economy.

“We have to deal with Harvey, we have the debt ceiling,” Rep. Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., the No. 2 House Republican, said Tuesday on the Fox Business Network. He also cited a short-term spending bill to keep the government running, as well as the budget, and taxes.

First up in the House on Wednesday is the initial $7.9 billion aid installment to help with immediate Harvey recovery and rebuilding needs in Houston and beyond. Additional billions will be tucked into a catch-all spending bill later in the month that will keep the government running past Sept. 30, when the current budget year ends. The administration wants the Harvey money to be linked with legislation to increase the government’s $19.9 trillion debt limit and avert a first-ever default on U.S. payments.

Lawmakers and GOP aides say that after the House passes a “clean” Harvey aid package, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., will do just that by adding a debt limit increase to keep the government solvent — and solve the politically toxic issue — past next year’s midterm elections. Later in September would come a stopgap spending measure to keep government agencies operating from the Sept. 30 end of the fiscal year into December.

Linking the debt issue to Harvey aid — pushed by Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin, among others — is rankling GOP conservatives and others, though they seem unlikely, for now, to launch a full-scale rebellion over it.

“Somebody who’s just been pulled off their roof doesn’t want to hear about our internecine squabbles and debates over procedure when they’ve lost their homes and are trying to figure out where they’re going to sleep the next night,” said Rep. Charlie Dent, R-Pa.

Swift action on Harvey will give Congress and Trump the chance to look competent and remind voters that government can be a positive force. GOP lawmakers head into the final quarter of the year desperate to notch accomplishments and make headway on a sweeping tax overhaul, and the majority party is eager for the chance to turn around its dreary track record ahead of next year’s midterm elections.

Trump is tossing another tricky issue Congress’ way. The administration is announcing that Trump will end protections for young immigrants who were brought into the country illegally as children, but with a six-month delay intended to give Congress time to address the issue. But it was unclear whether it could resolve the problem given that it has had several failures in attempts to enact comprehensive immigration reform.

Some Republicans, led by House Speaker Paul Ryan, R-Wis., have urged Trump not to end the program and save nearly 800,000 from threat of deportation.

Adding to the pile of work, a few important programs are expiring at the end of September and need to be renewed. They include children’s health insurance payments and a national federal flood insurance program that has bipartisan support but continually pays out more than it takes in through premiums.

Democratic leaders have priorities of their own and are seeking reassurances about consideration of legislation on immigration and additional spending for domestic accounts facing a freeze at existing levels.

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