Full Plate, Little Action Expected With Congress' Return

Full Plate, Little Action Expected With Congress' Return
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Lawmakers return to Washington from a seven-week recess Tuesday for a one-month sprint of legislative work before the 2016 election. They have just September – plus one week in October for the Senate – to address potential crises, fund the federal government and deal with major legislation left untouched so far this year.

That’s not to mention the myriad issues that are likely to get attention as a way to help – or hurt – legislators in tough re-election fights. Expect Democrats to try to force Republicans to deal with wedge issues, and Republicans to fight back by bringing up legislation that puts Democrats in a bind. With partisan fighting and strict deadlines, it’s unclear how much can actually be achieved in such a short time frame before lawmakers depart Washington again to spend October campaigning.

Here’s a look at what to expect from the final few weeks of pre-election Congress:

Zika

In the biggest example of failed legislating this year, Congress departed Washington stalemated over funding to combat the Zika virus crisis. Republicans scoffed at President Obama’s $1.9 billion request, but agreed to fund $1.1 billion. Democrats filibustered the final package, however, arguing that Republicans put in poison pill policy riders that prevented any funding from going to Planned Parenthood clinics, which they say is vital because the virus can be transmitted sexually. Republicans countered that there is funding in the legislation for women’s health care through community health centers and that Democrats made up an excuse for a partisan filibuster.

The Senate is likely to re-vote on the failed measure from earlier this year, which Democrats will almost certainly continue to filibuster. It’s unclear what, if any, negotiations have been ongoing to break the impasse. Meanwhile, the Centers for Disease Control said last week that money to fight Zika is running out.

"The cupboard is bare," said Tom Frieden, who heads the CDC, according to the Washington Post. "Basically, we're out of money, and we need Congress to act to allow us to respond effectively."

Texas Sen. John Cornyn, the second-ranking Republican, said last week he was confident Zika funding would pass before the end of September, according to the Houston Chronicle.

“I promise,” Cornyn said.

Funding the government

Republicans made an attempt to work their way through individual appropriations bills this year – after Democrats filibustered right from the start in 2015 – but ultimately fell short. The House passed six of the 12 bills, and the Senate passed three. Both sides acknowledge there will need to be a stopgap measure to fund the government past September or there will be a shutdown. The main question is over exactly how long to fund the government, and whether policy riders will hurt negotiations.

Senate Democratic Leader Harry Reid made clear in a conference call with reporters Thursday that his party would not accept a continuing resolution to fund the government past 2016. That would force Congress to re-address the issue in a lame-duck session after the election, and would shield the next president from having to negotiate funding the government early in his or her administration.

“We are not doing anything into next year,” Reid said. “And Republicans should be aware of that right now.”

That’s the same strategy Congress has taken the last two years: short-term funding to finish out the year, then a major omnibus bill in December to fund the government through the following September.

But conservatives in the House, led by the Freedom Caucus, don’t approve of lame-duck sessions of Congress, and want a funding measure that lasts into March of 2017, leaving the work to the next Congress. If they push hard on that stance, it could put Speaker Paul Ryan in a difficult negotiating position.

Iran, Clinton Foundation and Email Investigations

Republicans on Capitol Hill have expressed outrage at a trio of issues that are likely to receive attention this month: First, there’s the Obama administration’s $400 million cash payment to Iran that coincided with the release of four Americans imprisoned there – which Republicans have labeled a ransom, something the administration denies. House Oversight and Government Reform Committee Chairman Jason Chaffetz sent a letter to Secretary of State John Kerry last month requesting more information on the matter, and asking him to testify before lawmakers on it.

In a memo to reporters, House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy said the lower chamber will consider “a number of measures” related to Iran, including a “legislative response” to the cash payment, though further details were not released. Sen. Mark Kirk, the chairman of a subcommittee with oversight of the Treasury Department, and locked in a competitive re-election this fall, has said he will hold a hearing to examine the administration’s payment to Iran.

Second, there’s Hillary Clinton. Republicans have held numerous hearings seeking details about her private email server, including testimony from the FBI director in early July after the bureau released a report advising no charges be filed against the former secretary of state. Republicans were unsatisfied with his responses, and two committee chairmen laid out a case last month for charging Clinton with perjury for her testimony about the emails.

Third, Chaffetz has also sent a letter to Kerry requesting information about ties between the Clinton Foundation and State Department after the Associated Press reported that Clinton met with many donors to the foundation while at Foggy Bottom. Republican investigations into these matters are likely to continue throughout September. 

Gun legislation

The House and Senate failed to come to an agreement about gun legislation in the wake of the deadliest shooting in U.S. history at an Orlando nightclub in June. Votes on four gun-control measures failed mostly along party lines in the Senate in the weeks following the massacre, and an effort to forge a bipartisan solution survived a test vote with 51 senators backing it, but remains well short of the 60 votes necessary to pass the upper chamber.

It’s unclear what action, if any, will be taken on guns in the short session. But Democrats began pushing the envelope on this issue after Orlando, with Sen. Chris Murphy staging a filibuster on the Senate floor and House Democrats disrupting their chamber with a sit-in to protest the lack of gun votes. While Democrats in past years have viewed gun control measures warily in election years, the tide has clearly shifted. They appear to view these measures as a winning campaign issue, and believe real legislative action remains possible. Particularly if there is another mass shooting or tragic event while Congress is in session, a renewed push for a bipartisan solution could be possible, though it’s still unlikely to actually pass.

Criminal Justice Reform and TPP

Justice reform and the Trans-Pacific Partnership were viewed as two of the biggest legislative prizes at the start of 2016, but neither has seen any significant movement so far this year. The hopes for justice reform remain, while TPP is considered mostly, if not entirely, dead for this Congress.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell has said TPP will not pass this year even in a lame-duck vote after the election, and Speaker Ryan has said the votes aren’t there for it in the House. President Obama, however, is expected to continue to push for Congress to ratify the trade agreement. If the administration hopes for a lame-duck session to take it up, there will have to be some movement in that direction during the September session. But support is limited, and any action is extremely unlikely.

Justice reform hopes are slightly higher. Ryan has repeatedly spoken in favor of the effort and said in an interview with NPR in July that he expects the House to take up several bills on the issue during September. Advocates hope a large bipartisan vote in the House could spur action in the Senate, where there has been growing bipartisan support this year, but not enough to convince McConnell to bring the legislation to the floor. With so few days in session, however, it’s unlikely the chamber would be able to take up and pass a bill before the election. But a strong vote in the House could open the door for the Senate to deal with the issue during a lame-duck session in November or December.

Supreme Court Vacancy Still an Issue

It’s flown under the radar during a summer dominated by the presidential race, but the Supreme Court remains one member short, and Merrick Garland’s nomination is still in limbo. At every turn, Republicans have stood by their decision to not act on his nomination, and it’s highly unlikely they will waver on it just weeks before the election. But Democrats have sought to make this a campaign issue, and will try to put a spotlight on it as much as possible in the next few weeks.

 “We’re going to focus on this,” Reid said during the conference call Thursday. “We are not walking away from one of the biggest political – what’s the word for it? – debacles in the history of our country.”

He said there are “a number of alternatives” that Democrats could take to force action, though there’s little they can do beyond a tactical move to force a procedural vote on the floor. That would create headlines and take up time on the Senate floor, but wouldn’t be likely to change any Republicans’ minds.

IRS Commissioner Impeachment

This is a top priority for House conservatives, who believe IRS Commissioner John Koskinen misled and lied to Congress during its investigation into the Tea Party targeting scandal at the agency. They successfully convinced Ryan and Judiciary Chairman Bob Goodlatte to hold hearings on the matter in May, but there was no further action. Frustrated members of the Freedom Caucus then filed a privileged resolution to bring up a measure forcing the impeachment of Koskinen, and are likely to continue this push when lawmakers return in September. Impeaching the commissioner would be a difficult vote for many Republicans, torn between criticism from the right that they weren’t hard enough on Koskinen, and criticism from the left for what would be an unprecedented step to remove someone at his level from office. Taking that vote just weeks before facing voters for re-election would put moderate members in competitive races in a bind.

These are just a few of the issues awaiting lawmakers when they return from their long recess on Tuesday. But with the House scheduled for just 17 legislative days, and the Senate for just 23, many of them will be left unresolved before the election. That could lead to a hefty lame-duck agenda at the end of the year, but it will also fuel a number of campaign attacks heading into Nov. 8.  

James Arkin is a congressional reporter for RealClearPolitics. He can be reached at jarkin@realclearpolitics.com. Follow him on Twitter @JamesArkin.

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