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Congress returns: Here's what's on tap

With an eye to midterm elections, look for Congress to wrap up spending bills in a stopgap measure, clash over reauthorizing the Export-Import Bank, punt on immigration reform, and stage votes to distress the other side.

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    Congress returns to work this week with a relatively short and simple agenda, vote to keep the government operating in the short term, then return home to campaign.
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Congress returns from recess next week after an unexpectedly successful final week in July. Congress passed a significant veterans health bill and temporarily extended the Highway Trust Fund. While there were breakthroughs, Congress failed to find common ground on several issues. With only 12 legislative days left before the election, here is what’s on tap.

Continuing resolution. Congress will pass a short-term continuing resolution (CR) in the next two weeks, delaying action on an omnibus appropriations package until the lame duck session. This should be among the first issues addressed by the Congress if incumbents want to avoid the disaster that occurred last year when many parts of the federal government shut down for 16 days. A shutdown five weeks before an election could well lead to a number of congressmen and senators being unemployed in 2015. Despite the incentives to pass the CR quickly and quietly, other issues are creeping into the fold. With significant Republican disagreement on the border crisis and the Export-Import Bank’s temporary extension, extra provisions may be attached to the must-pass CR. If President Obama decides to implement changes that amount to immigration reform via executive order, the CR may become a more contentious debate.

Export-Import Bank reauthorization. Addressing the Export-Import Bank charter is unavoidable this month. The bank’s charter expires on Sept. 30 and Congress’s action or inaction on this front will make headlines. The bank’s existence highlights the now frequent divide between immoderate and mainstream Republicans. More conservative members, who now include high-ranking Republicans such as House majority leader Kevin McCarthy of California, Rep. Steve Scalise of Louisiana, and Financial Services Chair Jeb Hensarling of Texas oppose the bank’s reauthorization. Meanwhile, business groups such as the US Chamber of Commerce, the National Association of Manufacturers, among several hundred others, have sent several heavy-hitters to advocate for the bank. Reports indicate that a short-term extension is being negotiated between House Speaker John Boehner and Hensarling.The Senate has already begun the process of bringing its reauthorization to the floor. However, it is unclear how and when the reauthorization will make its way through the process before the 30th. Any provision including Ex-Im’s extension will face opposition. Therefore, it will need to be done quickly as it will almost certainly face a filibuster in the Senate, which could delay action for two weeks.

Immigration supplemental and DACA. The House and Senate had widely different ideas on how to address the border crisis. After a failed first attempt, the House passed $694 million in supplemental appropriations along with a bill restricting executive leeway on deferred action on deporting child arrivals (DACA). The Senate overcame a filibuster on a $2.7 billion dollar bill only to fail on a procedural vote the following day. Since then, the child migrant crisis has virtually disappeared from the news cycle. Without any natural momentum from the media, lawmakers would have to take it upon themselves to generate energy for compromise. With elections looming and a packed legislative schedule, a compromise supplemental funds package would be a big lift. Action on this front is more likely to happen in the lame-duck session if it happens at all this Congress.

Islamic State. The House and Senate will likely debate a resolution authorizing the president to deal with the Islamic State (IS). The fly in the ointment is that President Obama will need to ask Congress for more authority before lawmakers will actually pass such a bill. The president has annoyed Democrats in the Senate as well as Republicans with his unartful comments regarding the escalating situation in the Middle East. But both chambers would be loath to deny him the latitude to bring to justice the barbaric killers of journalists.

Legislative campaigning. Bills that could get votes but won’t pass the other chamber:

In the House: shaming the Senate. Speaker Boehner and Majority Leader McCarthy have outlined a schedule intended to put pressure on Senate Democrats leading up to the election. They plan to package several job and energy bills previously passed individually earlier this Congress into a House-omnibus, of sorts. This “closing argument” will increase pressure on the Senate’s Democratic leadership as well as vulnerable Democrats from energy states such as Mary Landrieu of Louisiana, Mark Begich of Alaska, and Mark Udall of Colorado. Like the previous bills, this package will not see the Senate floor. However, minority leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky may make it a point to mention the bill as often as possible.

In the Senate: minimum wage, pay equity, and student loans. Much like the House, the Senate will likely schedule its own votes on how to improve the lives of voters. Instead of the House’s job growth and energy bills, the Senate may focus on minimum wage, pay equity, and lower interest rates on student loans. In addition, there is also an effort to vote on legislation to stop the practice of US companies relocating in foreign countries solely to avoid taxation. The recent talks between Burger King and Tim Hortons have brought this issue to the forefront for many politicians, particularly Senate tax writers. Again, just like the House agenda, these bills have no chance of passing the other chamber even if they did overcome a filibuster, which they won’t. This Senate agenda is about votes in November, not passing bills in September.

One thing is certain: Congress will not address all of these problems before the election. In fact, it may only address one or two of these issues. In these final weeks before November, leaders will orient the legislative process toward campaigns rather than policy. Don’t expect much before Nov. 4. 

Joshua Huder publishes his Rule 22 blog at http://rule22.wordpress.com. Mark Harkins co-wrote this post.

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