When Congress returns from the Memorial Day holiday the House and Senate will have about two months before their annual August recess, a moment widely seen as a legislative point of no return given the pressures of presidential politics this election year and the gridlocked situation on Capitol Hill.
Between Memorial Day and the dog days of the summer, however, the two chambers will move on several important but manageable priorities, while the massive issues of year-end tax increases, mandated spending cuts, and the legality of President Obama's signature health-care reform loom above all.
According to a memo sent to House legislators by majority leader Eric Cantor (R) and floor remarks from Senate majority leader Harry Reid (D), the two chambers will not be legislating in step over the next several weeks.
Mr. Reid said the Senate will take up issues including a farm bill, small business tax relief, cybersecurity, and pay fairness for women. By July 1, the Senate also has to figure out how to pass legislation that would keep federally subsidized student loan interest rates from doubling to 6.8 percent. The House passed a bill eliminating a preventive health-care fund to pay for the student loan rate extension's $6 billion tab, but Senate Democrats have balked at a similar proposal in their chamber.
What is not on the Senate agenda for the summer is passing a budget for the new fiscal year that begins on Oct. 1. While Congress is mandated by law to produce a budget resolution every year, the Senate has failed to failed to pass a budget for the last three years. Senator Reid and other Senate Democrats have argued that they don't need to, because the Budget Control Act, passed as part of debt-ceiling negotiations last summer, sets spending levels for the coming fiscal year.
The House, on the other hand, will be chiefly concerned with moving bills that fund several of the government's major functions, including veterans affairs and intelligence and perhaps a handful of others like energy and water or homeland security. It will also vote on a measure to reauthorize the Food and Drug Administration to collect user fees, which would then have to be reconciled with the Senate version of the bill passed on Thursday.
Moreover, the House will take two cuts at President Obama's healthcare reform law by passing measures that would repeal a tax on medical devices and change rules relating to the subsidized purchase of over-the-counter drugs. In the Senate, these proposals are dead in the water.
Beyond that, the key piece of Mr. Cantor's memo is a promise to vote on measures that would head off the crush of tax increases slated for year's end. (For a full list of the coming "fiscal cliff," see Decoder's prior analysis).
"Very little of what we do this summer will be able to offset the harm to small businesses if the largest tax increase in American history is allowed to go into effect on January 1, 2013," Cantor wrote.
The House will vote on tax rates before the August recess, according to the memo.
And then there is the Supreme Court's expected ruling on Obama's healthcare law which could throw the whole agenda up into the air. If the law is upheld, Democrats will rejoice and Republicans will move full-steam-ahead to repeal the law legislatively. If part or all of the is overturned by the high court, however, the next steps are anyone's guess.
"Americans will rightly be focused on the effects of the Supreme Court’s ObamaCare decision when we return from July Fourth," Cantor wrote. "Although we do not know how the Court will rule, we are prepared to move forward to ensure that the whole unworkable law is fully repealed."