Congress Returns With Long To-Do List, Short Timetable
September 9, 2013
Congress returns Monday with 39 legislative days scheduled before the end of the year to debate the most consequential foreign policy vote under President Obama, resolve pressing budget deadlines and determine whether an immigration overhaul has a fighting chance before the 2014 elections.
Expectations are low for great successes in a divided institution plagued by partisan intransigence and abysmal approval ratings. "It will be the minimum to not commit the most egregious malpractice possible, which is setting the bar rather low," said Matt Bennett, a former Clinton administration aide at Third Way, a center-left think-tank.
Lawmakers had been bracing for a budget battle in September until Obama's surprise decision to seek congressional authorization to conduct military strikes in Syria scrambled the legislative calendar. His request raised the likelihood that Congress will pass a short-term, stop-gap measure to keep the government funded, so lawmakers can focus on a foreign policy debate that could consume Washington for the next two weeks.
If the Senate Syria resolution is filibustered, a vote on final passage could occur as late as the weekend. The House is not likely to act until — and unless — the Senate passes the resolution, probably pushing the House vote into the following week.
The fiscal year ends Sept. 30, and without an agreement on a funding bill, the federal government would begin to shut down operations. It's a showdown less likely to occur if military strikes are being conducted abroad, aides say.
"We are confident we can address a resolution on the use of force in Syria and still meet our other obligations in a fiscally responsible manner," said Michael Steel, a spokesman for House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio.
The speaker has initially proposed a stopgap spending bill extending funding through Dec. 15, but there will be resistance from 80 rank-and-file Republicans who have joined an effort led by freshman Rep. Mark Meadows, R-N.C., to oppose any funding measure that does not defund Obama's health care law.
If those lawmakers hold, GOP leaders will need to rely on Democratic votes to approve the funding measure, or risk a shutdown.
Rep. Peter Roskam, R-Ill., a top House Republican, said the GOP will continue to wage battles over the implementation of the Affordable Care Act. "Our members are highly unsatisfied by Obamacare," Roskam said, adding that Republicans are eyeing all possible legislative vehicles to rein in the law.
Republicans are also maneuvering for a budget fight in mid-October over the nation's debt limit, which stands at $16.7 trillion and cannot be raised without a congressional vote of approval. The debt ceiling does not authorize new spending; it allows payments for obligations the government has already approved.
Obama has vowed not to negotiate over the debt limit because the risk of defaulting on the nation's debts holds potentially severe economic consequences. Republicans see the vote as a leverage point to extract additional fiscal changes from Obama and congressional Democrats, such as overhauling the tax code and revamping entitlement programs such as Medicare and Social Security. "Of course, (Obama) is going to negotiate on the debt ceiling. He's negotiated in the past, and he'll negotiate in the future," Roskam said.
Fueling the intensity around the fall legislative agenda is skepticism that Congress and the White House can come to budget agreements. In late August, attempts by the White House to find common ground on the budget with a group of eight GOP senators collapsed after a final round of private talks with White House Chief of Staff Denis McDonough proved fruitless. "Everyone agrees they can't shut the government down or allow the debt ceiling to breach, but no one can figure out how they're going to avoid it," Bennett said.
Beyond the budget battles, a broad domestic agenda remains. For the House Republican leadership, legislation on food stamps, energy policy and GOP-led IRS and Benghazi investigations "remain priorities," according to a memo sent Friday to members by House Majority Leader Eric Cantor, R-Va.
Cantor said the House may consider legislation aimed at addressing immigration concerns this fall, but he offered no timetable. The Senate has passed a comprehensive bill that provides a path to citizenship for the 11 million undocumented immigrants living in the USA.
Frank Sharry, the executive director of America's Voice, which supports a comprehensive immigration bill, refutes the view that immigration cannot pass the House. "We still think we have a shot this fall," he said, citing the broad coalition behind the legislation ranging from Silicon Valley to evangelical groups and the political reality that Republicans are unlikely to ignore the issue before the midterm elections. "We actually think our fundamentals are stronger than their (Congress') dysfunction," he said.
Mark Krikorian, executive director of the Center for Immigration Studies, which opposes the Senate bill, said he believes Syria and the fiscal fights are likely to knock immigration off the agenda for the year. "It's increasingly likely the House won't pass anything by the end of the year," he said, "Number one, there's so much else going on. So much is crowding it out. Number two, the president has become weaker and more disliked because of (Syria)."
Roskam said the Syria vote, no matter the outcome, is likely to have repercussions for the White House-Congress relationship, particularly in the GOP-led House. "It has to," he said, "They find it deeply distressing that the president seems to be leading us in to a cul-de-sac. Like he's making it up as he goes along, and there's a reluctance about that and a wariness, I think."