Washington Insights & Highlights
November 16, 2018
Congressional Update

Congress Returns for a 4-Week Lame-Duck Session

Congress returned this week for a post-election lame-duck session. Although results of some races are still being tabulated, Democrats have won the majority in the House of Representatives, while Republicans have retained the majority in the Senate.

This week, the Senate held its leadership elections. Senator Mitch McConnell (R-KY) was re-elected as Majority Leader, while Senator John Thune (R-SD) was chosen to be the next Majority Whip, replacing the term-limited Senator John Cornyn (R-TX). Senator Thune will now step down as the Chairman of the Senate Commerce, Science, and Transportation Committee. Senators Chuck Schumer (D-NY) and Dick Durbin (D-IL) retained their positions as the top two Democrats. House Republicans elected Rep. Kevin McCarthy (R-CA) as Minority Leader and Rep. Steve Scalise (R-LA) as Minority Whip. House Democrats will hold their caucus elections on November 28. The vote for Speaker of the House will be held on January 3 with the first convening of the 116th Congress.

During the 5-week lame-duck session, lawmakers have a list of issues that need to be addressed, the first of which is a must-pass government funding bill. The current continuing resolution (CR) funding seven of the twelve appropriations bills, including—Agriculture, Interior-Environment, Commerce-Justice-Science, State and Foreign Operations, and Homeland Security—expires on December 7. Congress funded the remaining five spending bills, including—Labor-HHS-Education, Energy-Water, and Defense—through all of FY 2019 before it recessed for the election. Much of the negotiations will center around funding for a U.S.-Mexico border wall and whether lawmakers and the Administration can reach an agreement on the issue to avert a government shutdown. The Senate will also continue working on judicial and cabinet nominations, and both chambers could move to pass a tax extenders package.

Additionally, this week, the Joint Select Committee on Budget and Appropriations Process Reform marked up its proposal which would make changes to the annual congressional budget process. The bipartisan, bicameral committee, which was created as part of the 2-year budget deal reached earlier this year, is proposing that Congress take up a budget resolution once every two years, instead of the current requirement to adopt one every year. The committee unanimously adopted an amendment that would allow reconciliation to be used annually within a biennial budget resolution.

Looking forward to the 116th Congress, the House is likely to have a full legislative agenda, which could include immigration, health care, and infrastructure, while the Senate will focus mainly on confirmations. In terms of higher education, the fate of a Higher Education Act (HEA) reauthorization, a legislative fix to the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program, and potential action on certain stand-alone tax bills with impacts on college students, remains unclear. All these issues have levels of bipartisan support, although finding consensus will be challenging.

Bipartisan FAFSA Simplification Bill Introduced in the Senate

On Tuesday, November 13, a group of senators introduced bipartisan legislation, S.3611, Faster Access to Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) Act of 2018, which would simplify the process of applying for and repaying student loans. The bill would better integrate the Department of Education and the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) allowing for cross-agency data-sharing that would streamline the federal student aid system. There is a chance the legislation could pass during the lame-duck session, which could lay the groundwork for bipartisan work in the Senate around a HEA reauthorization bill in the 116th Congress.

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