Congress's summer 'to do' list not too taxing. What tops it?

The Senate will approve some agency nominations – and perhaps avoid a showdown over Obama's judicial nominees. Student loans need attention. A 'sequester' revise? Don't count on it before Congress recesses in August.

By , Staff writer

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    Consumer Financial Protection Bureau Director Richard Cordray delivers his organization's semi-annual report to Congress at a Senate Banking, Housing and Urban Affairs Committee hearing on Capitol Hill in Washington, April 23.
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Congress’s meager ambitions for the rest of July amount to locking in the Summer of Sequester – and not much else.  

With both chambers reconvening Monday for three weeks of congressional action before the month-long August recess, the largest potential accomplishment during that time appears to be compromise on how to set interest rates on federal student loans. 

That’s followed by the Senate approving President Obama's nominees to head several major government agencies, amid an imminent showdown over his judicial nominees. In the House, success would look something like limping into August having determined how to handle two issues that already swept through the Senate with massive bipartisan majorities: immigration and the farm bill.

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The student loan debate is up first because it involves an actual deadline – but even that may not be enough to move Congress to act.

Back in May, the House GOP passed a permanent fix to student loan rates that mirrored Mr. Obama’s own proposal. Senate Democrats balked, however, at the House offer and at a bipartisan bill in the Senate because, they say, pegging future student loan rates to the government’s cost of borrowing will almost certainly raise rates for student borrowers in the long term.

In the absence of any resolution, interest rates on the most heavily subsidized student loans doubled to 6.8 percent on July 1, putting the onus on lawmakers to fix the situation before the bulk of loans are disbursed in July and early August.

Republicans hope to force Democrats to negotiate on a long-term fix. Democrats want to extend the low interest rate of 3.4 percent for one year – and to tackle student loans in the context of the fall’s negotiations over reauthorizing higher education legislation.

More certain, however, is Senate ability to confirm new heads of the Environmental Protection Agency (Gina McCarthy) and the Department of Labor (Tom Perez). Republican senators have objections to both nominees, but both Ms. McCarthy and Mr. Perez are expected to take up their positions before the month is out.

A more difficult proposition will be Senate confirmation of Richard Cordray, who heads the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB). He was first appointed two years ago. (The Obama administration says his appointment came during a congressional recess, but congressional Republicans say it was an illegal action made during an appointment-blocking pro forma session.)

Bipartisan work is afoot to permanently install Mr. Cordray, whose recess appointment is nearing the end of its legal limits. But the uproar persists around his appointment, as do conservatives' concerns about the CFPB's structure and funding.  

Most contentious of all could be three nominations to the US Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit, which come up in the Senate Judiciary Committee later this week. Both parties have been sniping at each other for weeks over Senate rules that allow the minority party to all but choke off judicial appointments – rules that majority leader Harry Reid (D) of Nevada has threatened to shatter if Republicans don’t give way on judicial nominees.

If some or all of the three judges Obama has put forward to fill the powerful circuit court are approved, it will likely be because Republicans and Democrats reached a deal on how to handle future judicial nominations.

If Senator Reid “goes nuclear” and obliterates the Senate rules to approve the judicial nominations, Republicans in both houses will likely revolt – and July will be long remembered as the month some of the oldest guidelines of that chamber went up in smoke.

The House, for its part, is trying to figure out how to respond to the Senate’s productive June, when the body approved, by large margins, a sweeping overhaul of the nation’s immigration laws and a five-year farm bill.

The House’s first attempt at a farm bill, just before the Independence Day break, collapsed under the weight of conservative amendments that scared off too many Democrats. Republican House leaders have gone back to the drawing board to figure out how to resurrect a bill that nearly all thought had been certain to pass.

On Wednesday, House Republicans will huddle as a conference to discuss how best to proceed on immigration reform. They’ve got options, even after House leaders ruled out taking up the Senate bill altogether.

Two key House committees have churned out five immigration bills thus far, meaning Republicans could decide to take up and pass these small-bore measures (and potentially others as yet unwritten, such as targeted relief for young undocumented immigrants) to bring to a conference committee with the Senate.

Second, a bipartisan group of House lawmakers says it will introduce long-awaited immigration legislation, in a comprehensive form, before the August break.

But given that House majority leader Eric Cantor (R) of Virginia devoted all of two sentences to immigration reform in a three-page planning memo to his colleagues, the likelihood seems slim of any of that happening at high speed before September.

Plenty of bills appear in Representative Cantor’s memo, ranging from more access to American energy resources to funding government agencies including the Department of Defense. But precious few of them have a shot at becoming law because of objections from the Democratic-led Senate. 

What’s not on either body’s agenda?

Negotiations to fix the ongoing budget impasse, for one.

Although both chambers passed budgets more than three months ago, Republicans are blocking a path to a conference committee that would allow the two chambers to reconcile their considerable budgetary differences. Some of the Senate's most conservative members are blocking the quickest route to naming budget negotiators, in a bid to extract a promise from their colleagues that an increase in the federal debt ceiling won’t be allowed to occur in the context of a budget deal. (The US government will likely hit the debt ceiling sometime in October, according to government budget watchers.)

The Senate needs a simple majority – 51 votes – to OK the outcome of a budget conference, and that is making Senate conservatives uneasy that their friends in the House may cut a deal they don’t like.

With the Senate conservative clique blocking the way, House Republicans have also not pushed to move to conference committee, even as House Democrats put up a slate of lawmakers they would like to send into negotiations with the Senate.

No deal on the budget means no revision of the “sequester,” the $85 billion in automatic spending reductions that came into force earlier this year.

Republicans see that as a good thing: Congress will spend less money than the previous year for the first time since the early 1990s. Reduced government spending, they note, so far doesn’t seem to be too strong of a headwind to employment growth. (Nor are the sequester cuts doing any number of other nefarious deeds that Democrats said they would – at least not yet).

Still, that means the 650,000 civilian employees of the Defense Department who began a series of furlough days on Monday will, like a wide array of other government employees, see perhaps a dozen unpaid days through the end of the fiscal year Sept. 30. Democrats point out that spending cuts on priorities that don't produce much immediate pain – hiring, training, and maintenance, for example – could be swallowed for a year but can't continue indefinitely without hurting government services and military readiness.

In short, despite a few bipartisan steps forward, the current Congress is on pace to shatter even last session’s record for futility.

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