John Boehner may be officially retired, but the barn is not clean just yet.
Speaker Paul D. Ryan gaveled the House into session for the first time Monday morning and read an official notice that Boehner is out. But the logjam of legislation Boehner left behind has yet to be fully cleared. First off, the House will take up a six-year $325 billion highway authorization this week, showcasing Ryan’s vaunted open process. And the chamber may take a second crack at the National Defense Authorization Act, which President Obama vetoed last month.
The bills set up an interesting test for Ryan: Will the newly minted speaker allow a massive highway bill that is not fully paid for to pass? Will he try to change a defense bill that includes pay-fors that are almost universally regarded as gimmicky?
Ryan’s office said the speaker is emphasizing an open process above all on the highway bill, with a desire to push the legislation into a conference with the Senate. The House, however, is essentially taking up the Senate’s bill, substituting its own policy, but keeping the upper chamber’s pay-fors. In addition, the Rules Committee is set to wade through some 300 or more amendments this week. And while not all the measures will be made in order, the House floor will likely be busy into the evenings this week with debate over transportation funding.
“What I’m trying to say is we should open up the process so that everyone can participate,” Ryan said on NBC’s Meet the Press.
Furthermore, the Senate’s highway bill reauthorizes the Export-Import Bank. Although legislation reviving the 81-year-old lending institution has already passed the House—and there’s more than enough support to extend the bank’s charter in the Senate—Ryan, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, and other GOP leaders oppose it.
Ryan is well familiar with the highway bill: The Ways and Means Committee, which he chaired until last week, is responsible for half of its jurisdiction. The problem with the bill for many Republicans, apart from Ex-Im, is that the offsets cover only half of the bill’s six-year life span. For someone like Ryan who built his reputation on fiscal responsibility, the bill is hardly ideal. But while some have painted the bill as Ryan’s first big test, others cautioned that it will hardly be illustrative of how a Ryan House will work.
“Situations have come up and been dropped in his lap,” said a GOP leadership aide. “Things require action right away, and it’s not the process he would have preferred, but he’s going to deal with it in the best way that he can.”
Still, leadership will have to keep an eye on the process. With hundreds of amendments that could drastically change the bill, there is always the potential for poison pills. Any number of amendments could drive away Democrats or make the bill a nonstarter for conservatives, complicating passage, let alone a conference report.
Committee and leadership aides have said the House plans to let the amendment process play out and pass the bill with an understanding that Congress will find offsets to pay for the remainder of the bill later. Those would still have to pass both chambers, but the whole reauthorization would not need to be passed again. Ryan has been a proponent of using repatriation, or reclaimed tax money from offshore accounts, to pay for the remainder of the highway bill, and whether or not he wades into the policy from his perch as speaker will be instructive as to how he plans to rule.
That issue could be especially problematic because Ryan’s position butts heads with McConnell. In July, McConnell said he’s “skeptical” of using corporate-tax reform to pay for a long-term highway bill, preferring to tackle the entire tax code in a comprehensive manner.
Meanwhile, Republicans are still figuring out how to advance the defense-authorization measure. Staff sources said they could take up a veto override as early as this week. But it’s unlikely that Democrats would vote with Republicans to overturn the veto, because that would be viewed as a rebuke of President Obama, even though many of the issues he raised to justify his veto were resolved with the passage of the budget deal. What is more likely is that the committees craft a new bill with largely the same policy, but cutting $5 billion from the defense measure to put the bill in line with the terms of the budget deal.
Alex Rogers contributed to this article
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Daniel Newhauser is a staff correspondent for National Journal, where he primarily covers the House of Representatives. He was formerly a House leadership reporter for Roll Call, where he started as an intern in 2010 and quickly earned a slot as a beat reporter.
A native of San Antonio, Texas, Newhauser traveled further West to study journalism at Arizona State University's Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication and write for newspapers including the East Valley Tribune and the Green Valley News & Sun.