WASHINGTON ― Congress is striving to accomplish what rarely gets done in an election year: three separate bipartisan agreements on taxes, spending and immigration policy.
Landing even one deal would be considered a win before lawmakers depart for the campaign trail this summer, when partisan presidential politics kicks into high gear and action on Capitol Hill hits a standstill.
House and Senate leaders have made some progress on agreeing to top-line spending levels for the fiscal year, but they’ve yet to finalize important details and pass a bill. The appropriations process remains a huge mess, and all Congress has been able to do is pass short-term measures averting a government shutdown.
Meanwhile, a Senate group led by Chris Murphy (D-Conn.), Kyrsten Sinema (I-Ariz.) and James Lankford (R-Okla.) has pursued an even more challenging bargain pairing immigration reform and tougher border policies with military aid to Israel and Ukraine.
The unfinished deal has been subject to a barrage of criticism from conservatives, including House Speaker Mike Johnson (R-La.), who, like his predecessor as speaker, Kevin McCarthy, is facing a far-right faction within his narrow GOP majority that isn’t happy with making any concessions to Democrats, even if they have support from Senate Republicans.
Already, some House Republicans are urging their Senate counterparts not to agree to any border deal with President Joe Biden because the incredibly hard task of reforming the nation’s immigration laws will somehow get easier for Republicans if Donald Trump becomes president again.
“To those who think that if President Trump wins, which I hope he does, that we can get a better deal — you won’t,” Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) told reporters on Wednesday.
“There’s been a group of folks who have proclaimed themselves as the conservatives,” Rep. Mario Díaz-Balart (R-Fla.) said of the GOP hard-liners. “What’s starting to come out is this has nothing to do with being conservative. This is all to do with being celebrities.”
Murphy suggested the dynamic in the House may be the biggest obstacle to finalizing an immigration and foreign aid deal.
“There’s no doubt that the House is a big mess right now,” Murphy told HuffPost. “But that can’t stop us from trying to do our job, which is to seek bipartisan compromises on tough, tough issues.”
In response to a surge of migrants at the southern border, Republicans have proposed sweeping changes to asylum and parole laws that allow migrants to enter the country without giving them status as legal permanent residents, including limiting the administration’s parole authority and narrowing the circumstances under which a migrant can seek asylum in the U.S. ― the biggest hang-ups in the talks right now.
But Rep. Tom Cole (R-Okla.), who chairs the powerful House Rules Committee, said the immigration deal, if it ever makes it through the Senate, could go down at the hands of House Republicans who say it’s not strict enough but who are actually opposed to funding Ukraine’s defense against Russia.
“We have some people who are prepared to say any border agreement is not enough, mostly because they’re against Ukraine and it’s packaged with that,” Cole said.
Meanwhile, the top lawmakers working on tax policy in the House and Senate have been negotiating for weeks on a deal to expand the child tax credit alongside a revival of lapsed business tax deductions. This week they announced they’d reached an agreement ― but it’s anyone’s guess if it can make it through Congress and to Biden’s desk.
The proposal, hashed out by Rep. Jason Smith (R-Mo.) and Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.), would expand the child tax credit so that low-income working parents would be able to receive larger refunds after they file their taxes ― a priority for Democrats. The Republican side of the deal would restore business deductions for research and for capital investments.
The Wyden-Smith proposal has received mixed reviews by lawmakers on both sides of the aisle.
Rep. Richard Neal (D-Mass.), House Democrats’ point man on taxes, said the child tax credit changes should better resemble what Democrats passed in 2021 as part of the American Rescue Plan. That law temporarily boosted the credit from $2,000 to as much as $3,600 per child and allowed households with no incomes to qualify.
The Wyden-Smith proposal would allow families who already qualify for the credit to receive a larger portion as a refund, and it would give them flexibility to base their eligibility on whichever of the two most recent tax years provides the biggest benefit. But it wouldn’t expand eligibility to households with no income, meaning the credit would retain the work requirement for recipients that many Republicans have described as a priority.
“We would like a more predictable path to cash flow for poor people,” Neal told HuffPost on Wednesday, echoing criticism from Rep. Rosa DeLauro (D-Conn.), a prominent supporter of the child tax credit who has suggested she would not necessarily back a more modest change.
The Wyden-Smith deal pairs business and family tax breaks in order to win support from Republicans and Democrats, but some lawmakers stray from their party positions. Sen. Josh Hawley (R-Mo.) told HuffPost he liked the idea of expanding the child tax credit better than the business tax credits in the deal.
Rep. Derrick Van Orden (R-Wis.) also said he supported the child tax credit expansion. “We can’t keep saying we support family values and not do things to promote it,” said Van Orden, who got into hot water after he yelled at a group of Senate pages for taking photos in the U.S. Capitol last year.
But most Senate Republicans have approached the deal cautiously, suggesting they’d like to see changes before they sign on.
In a bad sign for its odds of passage in the Senate, Mitt Romney (R-Utah), a key player who has been active on the issue, told HuffPost he had concerns about the deal’s $70 billion price tag.
“I’m going to have a hard time adding more money to the child tax credit,” Romney said Wednesday, adding that he preferred Congress instead pass his deficit-neutral bill that would give monthly cash payments to parents.
“Congress must find solutions to help families take on the important job of raising children, and I believe we can accomplish this without adding to the deficit,” the senator added in a statement. (Wyden and Smith offset the cost of their bill by cutting a controversial employee retention tax credit so that the tax package wouldn’t add to the deficit.)
It may be difficult for Congress to write complicated legislation on a controversial topic during an election year, but it’s not impossible. In 2022, following two high-profile mass shootings, Murphy helped negotiate bipartisan gun safety reforms that made it to Biden’s desk.
Compared with talks over immigration and foreign aid, Murphy said, gun reform was easy. “That was a piece of cake.”