Lawmakers scramble to privatize air traffic control system, raise debt ceiling

You can almost hear the baritone affectations of news anchor Ted Baxter on The Mary Tyler Moore Show: “And in other news…”

The dramatic testimony of former FBI Director James Comey commanded most of the attention this week on Capitol Hill. But believe it or not, other stories unfolded in the halls of Congress.

House Transportation Committee Chairman Bill Shuster, R-Pa., is making his second run to privatize the nation’s air traffic control system. Shuster ran into opposition from his own party last time. The bill never hit the floor. This round, Shuster appeared at an event for “infrastructure week” at the White House and earned President Trump’s support.

“That’s going to help immensely,” gleamed Shuster, who suggested the House would advance his plan “in July.”

That may be Shuster’s goal. But there’s concern over a push to raise the federal debt ceiling before Congress leaves town at the end of July for the traditional summer recess. The debt ceiling struggle consumed Congress in July and part of August in 2011. It halted work on virtually any other issue.

Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin told Congress recently that lawmakers should hike the debt limit before cutting town. Mnuchin wants a “clean” debt limit increase. That means Congress simply votes to up the threshold without any attachments like offsets. Budget Director Mick Mulvaney would like to latch spending cuts or other policy provisions to any potential increase.

Such legislative “sweeteners” may be essential to coax reluctant lawmakers – especially conservative Republicans – to vote in favor of piling on more debt.

“The Treasury Secretary is and should always be the person in charge of debt-limit negotiations, debt-limit legislation,” said House Speaker Paul Ryan, R-Wis., apparently picking sides against former House colleague Mulvaney. But Ryan says he isn’t “forecasting any option” on how to grapple with the debt ceiling, including working with “Democrats and the other side of the Capitol in the Senate.”

While most eyes were trained on Comey’s testimony Thursday morning, Mnuchin huddled with House Republicans on tax reform and the debt ceiling. Mnuchin said the meeting was “good.” But the sides are far from consensus. Some Republicans advocate hooking the debt limit plan to the tax reform bill and moving the package without Democrats. A “sweetener” like tax reform could bolster the chances of Republicans voting for the package. Otherwise, Republicans may have to turn to Democrats.

“Democrats are not going to cooperate with us on anything. So if we have to do a debt ceiling increase along with tax policy, that would seem to me to be a pot-sweetener for some of the conservatives that will be otherwise reluctant to vote for a debt ceiling increase,” said Rep. Steve King, R-Iowa, after the Mnuchin session.

“Nobody likes to raise the debt ceiling, including myself,” said House Small Business Committee Chairman Steve Chabot, R-Ohio. “You hope to get some reforms in there. If you can get something big like simplifying the tax code, that would be a big one.”

Mnuchin joined National Economic Council Director Gary Cohn for a meeting Wednesday with Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell , R-Ky., and Senate Finance Committee Chairman Orrin Hatch, R-Utah.  Everyone refused to comment on what was even discussed in the conclave. Hatch offered that it was a “typical” meeting – although some question what constitutes a “typical” meeting in Washington these days. But that didn’t stop scribes from asking what they talked about.

“Shame on you,” said Hatch in response to the badgering press corps.

Mnuchin declined to “comment on the specifics.”

But when asked where they stood on tax reform, Cohn briefly stopped in the hall and declared “we’re on schedule.”

Are they?

Senate Democrats – and potentially a Republican or two – could filibuster a tax reform measure. Republicans only have 52 votes in the Senate now. If all Republicans are aligned, the GOP needs buy-in from eight Democrats to crush a filibuster with 60 votes. However, the pathway out of this cul-de-sac lies with a special parliamentary tool known as “budget reconciliation.” Senate Republicans can neuter a tax reform filibuster under reconciliation. The process curbs debate and limits amendments. Plus, reconciliation only needs 51 votes.

But there’s trouble: the House and Senate must first adopt a budget.

Republicans extolled the sanctity of budgeting for years, portraying Democrats as fiscal heathens when they struggled to approve budgets. But the GOP-led House failed to adopt a budget last year. House Republicans are now months behind schedule writing a budget for this year. There’s a reason the process is called “budget reconciliation.” The Senate can’t use budget reconciliation for tax reform unless it has a budget in place first.

“Right now a budget cannot pass in the House of Representatives,” said Rep. Jim Jordan, R-Ohio, one of the leaders of the conservative House Freedom Caucus at the Heritage Foundation on Friday. “It can’t.”

So, tax reform could be stalled unless Ryan and House Republicans cobble together the votes for a budget. While we’re at it, neither the House nor Senate has approved any of the 12 annual spending bills to fund the federal government. There’s talk about perhaps glomming all 12 together in some massive package this summer to avoid a government shutdown on September 30, the end of the government’s fiscal year. The failure to adopt a budget inhibits the plans of President Trump and Mulvaney to slash the deficit. But Congress doesn’t have to approve a budget each year. However, lawmakers must okay the 12 annual spending bills in some form - or face a government shutdown. And, Congress must also address the debt ceiling.

Former House Speaker John Boehner, a Republican from Ohio,  long employed a strategy of engineering a coalition of some Republicans and lots of Democrats to advance “must do” bills. Conservatives tired of this tactic and eventually ousted Boehner. It’s unclear if Democrats would play along if Ryan came to them, hat in hand.

House Democratic Caucus Vice Chairwoman Linda Sanchez, D-Calif., a member of the Ways and Means Committee, described an episode where she says Mnuchin appealed to Democrats for assistance on the debt limit.

“We said ‘You're preaching to the wrong choir,’” recounted Sanchez.

Sanchez says Democrats feel as though they’re “being taken for granted” when Republicans fail to include them in other discussions but beg for help on the debt ceiling.

“It’s time to step aside for the moment and see if (Republicans) can govern,” said Sanchez.

So if Democrats balk, Ryan, McConnell and other Republicans may have to figure out a path forward alone over the next few months. That brings us back to Shuster and his plan to privatize air traffic control systems. If the House and Senate get locked up on the debt ceiling (and maybe health care in the Senate...that’s another story), that chews up July. Congress must reauthorize the Federal Aviation Administration in September. So it’s possible leaders could hook Shuster’s privatization plan to that bill. GOP leaders could glue all of that to a bill to keep the government open and maybe raise the debt ceiling in September.

Such an approach eventually got Boehner into trouble. Could Ryan face similar consequences? Maybe. But multiple Republicans tell Fox that they’re willing to give Ryan more leeway. It seems they just like the Wisconsin Republican more than the former Speaker.

“John Boehner was a jerk,” snorted one House conservative when asked about the differences between Boehner and Ryan.

Colleague Mike Emanuel notes that one House Republican believes Congress may have missed its chance to deal with the debt ceiling this week. The thought was the House should have tried to slip a debt ceiling increase through on Thursday when everyone focused on Comey.

Few would have noticed an audacious gambit like that amid the gravity of the Comey hearing. But one thing’s for certain. With a news week like this, even raising the debt ceiling would have scored little more than a Ted-Baxter-esque “And in other news…” mention.