Washington in August is miserably hot and strangely desolate, especially on Capitol Hill. Lawmakers and their coteries of staff have gone home or to the beach for the August recess. The stragglers on the steps of the Capitol Building are mainly tourists, wiping sweat from their brows.
This year, the languor was tinged with anxiety for lawmakers. Republicans faced tough questions from constituents over their handling of the failed health care bill as they looked ahead to an equally divisive debate over tax reform. They face the routine but difficult work of passing a budget and raising the debt ceiling. And Hurricane Harvey struck Texas’ Gulf coast in one of the worst storms in U.S. history.
“We turn to the left, we turn to the right, and there is a crisis,” said Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee, the Democrat who represents Texas’ 18th congressional district, which includes much of Houston, in the House of Representatives. “We’re resilient and we’re strong, but we’ve got some real issues here. On top of everything, we’re running out of money.”
When Congress returns to Washington on Tuesday, it will have little choice but to get to work, despite a recent track record of delay and failure. The need for emergency relief funding is now only the most urgent item atop an already tight legislative agenda.
There are only 12 legislative days in the House—and a handful more in the Senate—in which lawmakers have to work to beat two deadlines looming at the end of September: they must pass laws that both allow the government to continue spending money and raise the debt ceiling. On top of that, Congress must reauthorize the Federal Aviation Administration, the federal children’s healthcare insurance program and the national program for flood insurance.
“FEMA is burning through money,” said Drew Hammill, deputy chief of staff for House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi. “We have no choice but to pass something—even though we’re just trying to keep the train on the tracks.”
Some on the Hill see a silver lining in the clouds, however. The overwhelming need and support for securing emergency funding for victims of Hurricane Harvey could provide Congress with the blank check it needs to avoid a government shutdown and take care of its other outstanding business.
For much of August, a shutdown at the end…