The Must-Pass Highway Bill Dominates Jammed July

Tom Biegalski/Shutterstock.com

With a month-long recess looming in August, Congress is going to try to pack as much as possible into July.

In the next three weeks, members will have to contend with several pieces of must-pass legislation, meet a July 31 deadline to fill the nation's Highway Trust Fund, and lay the groundwork for even more critical legislation due in the early fall.

The House plans to take up two appropriations bills during its remaining summer stint in D.C., funding the Department of the Interior and filling the coffers for financial services, the White House, and a handful of other related agencies. Passing those two bills will get the House a third of the way through its appropriations process before the August recess, giving the lower chamber just three weeks to deal with eight additional bills—and coordinate passage through the Senate—before the government's funding runs out on Sept. 30.

The Senate is much further behind and has not passed a single appropriations bill yet this year. Whether the upper chamber will attempt to pass any of the 12 spending bills in July is unclear, given the current stalemate between the two parties. Democrats have not backed off their vow to block each of them until Republicans agree to raise the coming sequestration on nondefense programs. Given that each of the 12 appropriations bills takes about a week in the Senate, the upper chamber is already running short on time, raising the likelihood of a last-minute omnibus spending bill to prevent a government shutdown this fall.

In the meantime, the Senate will take up education legislation revising No Child Left Behind as its first act of the July session. The bipartisan bill, coauthored by Republican Lamar Alexander and Democrat Patty Murray, looks likely to pass. But the House will revive its own, much more conservative version of the education legislation during this session as well, likely leading both chambers to conference.

The only true deadline this session is July 31, when the nation's Highway Trust Fund—which gives federal funding to states to build and maintain roads and other infrastructure projects—runs dry.

With just three weeks to find a solution, neither chamber seems to have made much progress. Many in the Senate are pushing for a multi-year solution, with bipartisan legislation out of the Environment and Public Works Committee calling for a six-year extension, but the Senate's Finance Committee has yet to announce how it would be paid for. The House, meanwhile, appears to be moving toward another short-term patch, the third in the last year.

Complicating matters further, Democrats and some Republicans in the Senate plan to attach a bill reauthorizing the Export-Import Bank's charter as an amendment to the highway bill, orperhaps some other legislation. That won't go over well with House conservatives, who have been pushing to wind down the bank for years and praised its expiration on July 1. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell has promised his members a vote to reopen the bank's doors sometime this month, and it's clear that there are enough votes in the upper chamber to pass it.

But it's unclear what House Speaker John Boehner, who opposed letting the bank expire abruptly, will do. Boehner has kept mum, telling reporters last month that the House would wait on the Senate before deciding what to do. The bank was not mentioned in House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy's list of upcoming legislation for the July session.

The Senate could also see action on a forthcoming U.S. nuclear deal with Iran, which is set to be released to Congress by July 9, setting off a 30-day review period in the Senate on one of the most contentious issues the upper chamber has handled this year. If the administration misses that deadline, however—which is a possibility, given that negotiators this week announced they'll have to extend talks through July 7—senators will have 60 days to review the final accord whenever it comes through.

Both chambers will also begin conferences to resolve their differences on the National Defense Authorization Act as well as a customs-enforcement bill.

(Image via Tom Biegalski/Shutterstock.com)

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