Are we headed for a government shutdown to start the new year?
How are the 2018 mid-term elections shaping up?
What's new with political appointments at the Department of Education
Happy New Year! I hope you return to your work renewed and motivated for an exciting New Year. Congress heads back next week to face the mountain of work it put off at the end of the year. There is a lot on the agenda - that's for sure!
When members of Congress rushed to the airport in late December, they left a mountain of unfinished business behind. The most pressing deadline is January 19 - when the government will shut down if they don't act on a funding bill. Since the bill is a "must pass" bill, the stakes are high and the Democrats have more leverage than they often do. The bill will also act as a magnet for high profile controversial matters. Without the support of Democrats the bill won't fly and Republicans would likely be held accountable for closing the government. (Unlike with the tax reform bill which only required 51 votes in the Senate, the funding bill requires 60 votes - meaning that at least some Democrats must support it in order for it to pass.)
Complicating coming to agreement on the funding bill are the following items of unfinished business:
At the end of 2017, the House Committee on Education and the Workforce passed their version of the reauthorization of the Higher Education Act - HR 4508, the PROPSER Act. All Republicans voted for the bill and all Democrats opposed it. The next stop would be consideration on the floor of the House with Democrats expected to offer a substitute bill. However, finding floor time for the bill may prove to be a challenge given other matters on the legislative agenda as noted above.
The PROSPER Act raised many concerns for educators relating to the teaching profession - including:
Meanwhile, Senate HELP Committee chairman Lamar Alexander (R-TN), has said that he will work with Democrats - most notably Sen. Patty Murray (D-WA), the ranking Democrat on the Committee - to draft a bipartisan reauthorization bill. He hopes to mark it up this spring and hearings as early as this month are anticipated. Since this appears to be Sen. Alexander's final year as chair of the Committee (because of chairmanship term limits in the Senate), he is likely to be highly motivated to get a result before he steps down. Sen. Alexander has been talking about fixes to the Higher Ed Act for years - particularly simplifying the FAFSA (student aid application) and cutting down on regulations. Undoubtedly this stems back to his days as President of the University of Tennessee and US Secretary of Education. Having seen his success with a rewrite of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, he seems well poised and highly motivated for another legislative outcome.
The House bill is a non-starter in the Senate if that is to be a bi-partisan process. A number of targeted bi-partisan bills have been introduced in the Senate addressing issues such as FAFSA simplification, risk-sharing and access and accountability. These bills may be where the Senate rewrite starts - with bi-partisan measures already on the playing field.
This week two new Democratic Senators were sworn into office for 2018 - Tina Smith (D-MN) replacing Sen. Al Franken who stepped down over sexual misconduct charges and Doug Jones (D-AL) who took the seat that Jeff Sessions held prior to his appointment as Attorney General. Thus the balance of power has shifted by one, with the Republicans now holding 51 seats and the Democrats 49. Sen. Franken was an active member of the HELP Committee and his resignation leaves a vacancy for Democrats to fill.
Three Republican Senators have announced that they will not seek re-election next year - Jeff Flake (R-AZ), Bob Corker (R-TN) and most recently Orrin Hatch (R-UT). Sen. Hatch is the longest serving Republican in the Senate and a former chair and long term member of the HELP Committee. No Senate Democrats have indicated that they will not seek re-election.
In the House 40 Representatives have indicated that they will not seek re-election - 26 Republicans and 14 Democrats. In addition 7 Democrats and 10 Republicans have indicated that they will run for other offices - including Senator and Governor.
Many astute political observers believe the 2018 mid-terms are shaping up favorably for the Democrats to take the majority in either one or both of the Chambers. In the House Democrats would need to pick up 24 seats to take the majority. In the Senate far more Democrats than Republicans are up for re-election in 2018, thus making a Democratic takeover an uphill battle even though they would only need to pick up two seats to establish a majority.
Hope you are staying warm where you are. DC is in a deep freeze in more ways than one!
See you on twitter @janewestdc