Lawmakers returning to Capitol Hill face battles over Iran, Zika, criminal justice (maybe), and more.
Call it pre-gaming, preseason, the quasi-calm before the storm, whatever you like. Congress returns after Labor Day for roughly a month before bailing again until, probably, a lame duck session, when things could get really frenzied and unpredictable.
Here’s a few questions heading into the work period sandwiched between long election-year recesses:
As CDC Cash Dwindles, Can Congress Break the Zika Logjam?
The Senate is slated to vote next week on a $1.1 billion measure to combat the spread of the Zika virus, but Democrats have previously objected to the measure.
They’re upset over provisions that restrict Planned Parenthood from receiving funds to battle the virus, a measure that weakens Clean Water Act control over pesticide spraying, and other language.
But a top Republican said this week that lawmakers will break the logjam. “We’re going to get some additional funding here by the end of September,” Senate Majority Whip John Cornyn of Texas said in Houston on Tuesday, according to the Houston Chronicle.
“I promise,” he said.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is warning that they need Congress to act soon. CDC Director Tom Frieden told reporters this week that the agency will run dry of existing funds by the end of September.
Will Paul Ryan Finally Move on Criminal Justice?
House Speaker Paul Ryan has vowed to bring up legislation this fall and targeted September specifically, but beyond that, details are in short supply.
The Judiciary Committee has passed an array of bipartisan bills. Two pillars of the effort are easing harsh sentencing policies for nonviolent drug offenses and allowing reduced prison terms for some inmates who take part in programs to cut recidivism risk. But the package of bills also includes a GOP-led push to expand the number of crimes for which prosecutors must show that defendants knew their conduct was illegal, a measure that’s a nonstarter for many Democrats who fear it would make it tough to throw the book at white-collar criminals.
Advocates hope that House action would pressure Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, who faces resistance from some hard-line Republicans, to bring up the Senate’s bipartisan Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act. One wild card in the House is how much of the House Freedom Caucus will be on board. House aides say it’s likely to be discussed when the group meets next week. One prominent Freedom Caucus and Judiciary Committee member is publicly praising the effort.
“I appreciate [Judiciary] Chairman [Bob] Goodlatte’s making criminal-justice reform a priority in this Congress and have enjoyed working with him to produce meaningful change. I’ve been working on this issue for five years and I am encouraged by Speaker Ryan’s commitment to bring the committee’s legislation to the floor. This bipartisan effort to fix a broken sentencing and corrections system is historic and will result in a safer and more just America,” said Rep. Raul Labrador in a statement.
Still, add it all up and the prognosis is very, very murky. But activists still have hope. “It is still alive,” Marc Mauer, executive director of The Sentencing Project, tells National Journal. “There’s no question about that.” One more wrinkle: Criminal-justice reform is not listed on the September agenda that House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy sent around Wednesday, although his memo says more items could be added. An aide to Ryan directed questions to McCarthy’s office, which did not respond to an inquiry on Wednesday afternoon.
How Will the GOP Attack Hillary Clinton?
Floor battles and hearings in both chambers could give the GOP openings to put Hillary Clinton’s email woes and controversies around treatment of donors to the Clinton Foundation in the spotlight.
FBI Director James Comey is expected to testify before the House Judiciary Committee some time in September, giving lawmakers a chance to revisit his finding that Clinton and aides treated classified information with “extreme carelessness”—and attack the Justice Department’s decision not to prosecute her.
Over in the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, Chairman Jason Chaffetz has been all over the Clinton email issue in recent weeks, and is also probing the relationship between the Clinton Foundation and the State Department while Clinton was secretary of State. No hearings on the matter are yet scheduled in his committee.
One question is whether attacks over Clinton’s email system will find their way to the floor of either chamber. GOP lawmakers, before Congress went on summer break, introduced bills to strip Clinton of her security clearances. So far, Senate GOP leaders have only announced plans for floor action on Zika and Defense Department spending.
Josh Holmes, a former Senate GOP leadership aide, said campaign-related messaging votes from the GOP could come up if Democrats tie up the floor and make it into an election-season political battleground.
“From the majority’s point of view, when you are going into the end of an election season like this, you like to do the work that you have as quickly and efficiently as you possibly can,” said Holmes, now the president of the consulting firm Cavalry LLC.
“If the minority wants to stop all progress and make a political theater out of it, they should know it’s not a free shot,” added Holmes, who emphasized that he does not know of any GOP plans.
What’s the Spending Endgame?
The federal spending bill expires on Sept. 30. Leaders could decide to punt the issue into December, but a suite of conservative groups launched a effort this week to ensure that any new spending bill extend into 2017, thereby preventing lawmakers from passing an appropriations bill in the lame-duck session.
“History shows that end-of-year legislative packages are routinely rushed through Congress and to the president’s desk under the threat of a government shutdown—too fast for lawmakers and the taxpayers footing the bill to determine what is in them,” the groups said in a letter to lawmakers.
But GOP leaders have not yet laid out their plans. The September agenda that McCarthy circulated Wednesday says only that “Conference discussions will continue on overall government funding.”
Ryan will face pressure from Freedom Caucus members, however—The Hill reports that “a majority of the group’s three-dozen members are unwilling to vote for any CR that doesn’t extend funding into 2017.”
What’s Next for the Iran Controversy?
House Republicans are preparing to renew attacks on the White House over the $400 million sent to Iran in January. GOP critics contend it was ransom to secure the release of several Americans held there, even though it was technically part of the endgame of a longstanding dispute over an arms agreement reached before the Iranian Revolution in 1979.
House Republicans announced Wednesday that September will bring a “legislative response to the administration’s $400 million cash ransom (or ‘leverage’ ) payment to Iran.”
House Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Ed Royce said Wednesday that the bill being drafted “would prevent another ransom payment from happening. No more hidden cash payments to this state sponsor of terrorism.”
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