Recess Over, Congress Has a Pressing Fall Agenda
Congress returns this week from its annual month-long hiatus, but there will be no post-vacation easing back into work. Lawmakers face a hectic September full of big-ticket items, looming deadlines and a tight schedule to get it all done.
First up comes what many members of Congress have called the most important vote they will take during their time in office: whether to support the Iran nuclear agreement. Following that debate, GOP lawmakers face pressure to block funding for Planned Parenthood; there’s a looming budget crisis that could trigger a government shutdown; the Senate has to finish work on a cybersecurity bill that’s been languishing for months; and, amid all of this, Pope Francis will visit Washington and become the first pontiff to ever address a joint session of Congress.
Here’s a closer look at the busy September agenda on Capitol Hill.
The Iran Deal
The historic, but highly controversial, nuclear agreement with Iran took up much of the conversation during the August recess; this week, members of Congress will finally debate and vote on resolutions disapproving of the deal. The outcome is clear: The agreement has just enough support to survive Congress and be implemented. How exactly that will happen is less certain.
On the House side, there are enough votes to pass a resolution of disapproval, given that more than a dozen Democrats will join a unified Republican majority in opposing the deal, according to The Hill’s whip list. A resolution of disapproval will have a harder time in the Senate, where Democrats are closing in on the minimum number of votes needed to filibuster the resolution, preventing it from passing. As of Tuesday morning, 38 Democratic senators back the agreement, three oppose it and five remain undecided. Sen. Ben Cardin, the top Democrat on the Foreign Relations Committee, came out against the deal Friday, making the path to a filibuster more difficult. But if three of the five undecided senators join supporters, they could potentially block a disapproval agreement from even reaching the president’s desk. Some Democrats have criticized that strategy, however, and it remains, for now, out of reach.
If those two resolutions of disapproval pass, President Obama would have 12 days to veto the legislation and, once he does that, Congress would have 10 days to override that veto. That could potentially push the process into early October, but it seems likely that Obama would act swiftly. If that happens, the override deadline will loom right at the end of the month.
At that point, the outcome is already determined. House Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi said in a letter to colleagues last month that she is confident the veto would be sustained in the lower chamber. The Senate has enough declared supporters to do likewise, though if the House votes first, it won’t even get to the upper chamber.
Even though the ultimate outcome is determined, don’t expect Republicans to go down without a fight. They will rally against the deal on the Capitol grounds later this week, led by firebrand presidential candidates Sen. Ted Cruz and Donald Trump. In the Senate, Majority Leader Mitch McConnell has said the debate will feature the rare spectacle of all 100 senators sitting at their desks, listening to their colleagues’ arguments and actually debating the measure. Republicans will make sure their opposition is well documented, even as the deal survives congressional review.
Once the Iran issue is settled, lawmakers’ attention will likely return to the embattled women’s health organization. Since a series of videos appeared earlier this summer showing employees of Planned Parenthood discussing fetal tissue procurement, possibly for profit, there has been outrage from conservatives and calls to end the $500 million in government funding the organization receives annually. Republicans insist the organization broke the law by selling fetal tissue, while the organization maintains the videos have been misleadingly edited and it didn’t break any laws.
Several congressional committees have begun investigations into Planned Parenthood to determine culpability, if any, but that likely won’t satisfy opponents of the group. The Senate attempted a vote to defund the organization before the recess, but it failed along party lines to break a filibuster, an outcome that would be repeated if leadership tries again to hold a vote. McConnell said as much in an interview on a Kentucky TV show last month.
“I would remind all of your viewers, the way you make a law in this country: The Congress has to pass it, and the president has to sign it,” McConnell said. “The president has made it very clear he is not going to sign any bill that includes defunding of Planned Parenthood, so that’s another issue that awaits a new president, hopefully with a different point of view about Planned Parenthood.”
Though the votes simply aren’t there for defunding, many conservative lawmakers – most notably Cruz – have said they will fight to achieve the same goal via other government funding measures. That could potentially lead to a shutdown.
Funding the Government
Speaking of shutdowns, the next official deadline for Congress after the Iran deal will be to fund the government by Oct. 1. That will come in the form of a continuing resolution, as the time has passed (because of Democratic filibusters) for Congress to complete its appropriations bills. It may surprise some, but the shutdown talk did not begin with the Planned Parenthood videos. It actually began with the completion of the budget process earlier this year. Republicans passed a budget that locked in automatic spending cuts, known as sequestration, for domestic spending while increasing an overseas war fund as a way to boost defense spending. Democrats criticized this as a gimmick and Obama said he would not sign a budget that doesn’t raise spending for both domestic programs and defense equally above the automatic limits. That, in effect, began the battle – and the potential for a shutdown.
Democrats spent the summer calling on Republicans to negotiate on the matter, while Republicans accused Democrats of halting the appropriations process. Ultimately, this will lead to a short-term negotiation to pass a continuing resolution before Oct. 1.
“Our Democratic friends want to spend more on everything, we’d like to spend more on defense, and so there will be kind of a grand negotiation here in the fall between the two sides over just how much the discretionary budget of the United States government ought to be and how that ought to be spent,” McConnell said, adding later that he’d be in negotiations with the administration about how much to spend.
If a continuing resolution is reached, it will likely fund the government through the end of the year, setting up yet another funding debate in December. If a continuing resolution isn’t reached, the government will temporarily shut down. Given the Planned Parenthood battle, disagreements over military spending and mandatory budget cuts, there are plenty of potential roadblocks to these negotiations.
The Pope’s Visit
Amid all these different deadlines, Congress will host one of the most famous visitors to ever address a joint session: Pope Francis. He will be in Washington Sept. 22-24, and his historic address will take place on the final morning. While that won’t take away too much legislative time, there will be an extreme amount of attention and fanfare attached to the visit, which could potentially distract lawmakers from the other negotiations.
Cardinal Donald Wuerl, the archbishop of Washington, told reporters at a breakfast sponsored by the Christian Science Monitor that he expects the pope to address some of the controversial issues he has in the past, including climate change, but that he won’t be proposing any policy. “What our Holy Father will be doing is addressing issues,” Wuerl said. “Public policy is one way of responding to issues. But another way to address issues is to put them in a spiritual and pastoral dimension.”
If and when Congress addresses these pressing matters, there won’t be much time for a break. The Senate will look to take up cybersecurity legislation soon after returning from the recess with the hope of getting it passed quickly. The House passed a version of the legislation earlier this year that would give companies legal protections to share information about cyberthreats and hacks with government agencies. McConnell attempted to complete the legislation before the August recess, but votes were continually delayed, with many senators, including privacy-minded Democrats Ron Wyden and Patrick Leahy, wanting to attach amendments to the bill. They ultimately reached a deal on the number of amendments that can be voted on before departing for recess and are poised to take up the legislation sometime soon after completing the Iran debate.
Plenty of other deadlines loom for the remainder of the fall. Lawmakers passed a short-term patch of the Highway Trust Fund earlier this summer, but that runs only through Oct. 30. If a long-term solution isn’t reached by then, lawmakers will be forced to pass another short-term bill or see infrastructure projects across the country come to a halt.
Just weeks after that, they will come face-to-face with another fight over the debt limit. The Congressional Budget Office estimates that the extraordinary efforts the Treasury has taken to prolong the current debt authority will run out sometime between mid-November and early December, meaning Congress will be forced to vote on raising the ceiling at that time. This issue has been a difficult fight in the past, with budget hawks eager for spending concessions in exchange for raising the limit. Not long after that, lawmakers may face yet another government funding problem in December unless a deal can be reached for a longer-term continuing resolution.
So, the remainder of 2015 presents a steep hill for Congress to climb, and it all begins with a hectic, jam-packed three weeks this month.