Congress Is Back. Its Mission? Keep Government Open.
Lawmakers and aides say not to expect drama this time around.
The time remaining before November's crucial midterm elections is short, and so is Congress's To Do list.
The House and Senate return Monday for a brief work period, with an agenda that includes a number of messaging bills, a critical measure to fund the government, and potentially a bill to extend the Export-Import Bank before leaving town again for the campaign trail.
Congress comes back to work amid a series of foreign crises grabbing headlines, but aside from rhetorical flourishes designed to suggest strength, House and Senate leaders have not signaled they'll send any substantive foreign policy legislation to the president.
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid has said Sept. 23 will be his chamber's last day before the election, and House Speaker John Boehner and his GOP leadership team will be maneuvering with the goal of finishing work by the end of next week rather than—as the current schedule suggests—returning to D.C. at the end of September for one additional week.
The top priority will be passing a continuing resolution through the middle of December. Such funding bills have recently sparked partisan battles, but, privately, Democratic and Republican aides say what Minority Leader Mitch McConnell has said publicly: Don't expect drama this time around—members want to get home for the election.
Congress must still reach an agreement on extending the Export-Import Bank or letting its charter lapse by Sept. 30. The path forward there is murky, and the issue could provide this session with a dramatic coda.
Senate Democrats want to see the bank extended "for as long as possible," said one Senate Democratic leadership aide. But with conservatives and right-leaning advocacy groups opposing it, the bank's fate in the House is unclear.
The issue was left out of House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy's September agenda memo.
Instead, McCarthy said the House will vote on a pair of energy and jobs packages, including measures urging the construction of the Keystone XL pipeline and easing federal regulations.
But perhaps the biggest story line playing out both in Washington and in the states is the big-money, high-stakes tug-of-war for control of the Senate; the House is not expected to change hands.
Republicans could gain the majority with a net pickup of six seats, and they're facing just the electoral map to do it. That reality also explains why Reid has set a vote on a constitutional amendment aimed at reining in money in politics.
The amendment, sponsored by 48 Senate Democrats, won't go anywhere because Republicans oppose it. But the vote complements Reid's and the Democrats' yearlong effort to demonize the Koch Brothers and so-called dark money in politics.
Democrats may also bring other pieces of their election-year agenda to the floor, including a minimum-wage hike or a student-loan bill, according to Senate Democratic leadership aides. But a decision on whether and which measures to bring hadn't been finalized.
Senate Democrats also intend to pass the so-called Internet tax moratorium, which the House has already passed, a Democratic leadership aide said. And with news that Burger King bought doughnut retailer Tim Hortons to benefit from Canada's lower corporate tax rate, Democrats might also pursue legislation aimed at "tax inversions," the aides said.
On Monday, the Senate will vote on the nominations of Jill Pryor to be U.S. Circuit Judge for the 11th Circuit; and on three people to join Social Security Advisory Board: Henry Aaron, Alan Cohen, and Lanhee Chen.
These two weeks will likely bring passage of a continuing resolution to extend funding for government agencies beyond the start of the new fiscal year on Oct. 1.
But while that stopgap measure would likely continue funding at current levels, there could be disputes within Republican ranks over how long it should run.
Right now, talk has centered on an extension to Dec. 11 or Dec. 15. But some Republicans are wondering why—given the chance that Republicans could take control of the Senate next year as a result of the Nov. 4 elections—they would want to give Reid another round of leverage over a new spending bill in December. Why not push it into the next Congress?
Meanwhile, the debt ceiling is currently suspended through March 15, 2015. But there is a chance that some Republicans—especially if their party wins control of the Senate next year —would push to get this done early, during a lame-duck session.
The idea here, according to some Republicans, might be to get an onerous increase out of the way under Democrats' watch.
Spotlight on ISIS
Despite lawmakers' efforts to make the preelection session as brief as possible, the thorny subject of whether to grant the president formal authorization to attack the Islamic State will come up.
Whether Congress will send anything to the president seems unlikely.
Two bills authorizing the strikes against the group, which last week released a video showing the beheading of journalist Steven Sotloff, are expected to be introduced. Democratic Sen. Bill Nelson of Florida and Republican Rep. Frank Wolf of Virginia each plan to file bills granting the president authority to engage militarily.
Beyond those bills, both the House and Senate Intelligence committees are meeting behind closed doors this week to discuss "ongoing intelligence activities."
President Obama is back in the country after a week of foreign travel. But his schedule for the week is very light, with no public events scheduled for Monday, Tuesday, or Wednesday.
On Thursday, Obama will participate in two events commemorating the anniversary of the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. On Friday, he welcomes former President Clinton back to the White House to mark the 20th anniversary of AmeriCorps, the national service program started by Clinton. Obama will then go to Baltimore to raise campaign money for the DSCC.
(Image via Flickr user Senate Democrats)
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