Congress is back for 'closing arguments' before Election Day

Congress has immediate problems to resolve in its last weeks before November elections, including finding a way to avoid a shutdown after Sept. 30. But getting base voters to the polls looms over all.

J. Scott Applewhite/AP/File
Television news lights await the start of activity on Capitol Hill in Washington, Sept. 9, 2013, as both houses of Congress return to full legislative session. Lawmakers are streaming back to Capitol Hill after this year's summer vacation.

They’re baaaaaack. Members of Congress streamed back to Washington on Monday after a five-week recess, their approval rating the lowest ever in a midterm election year, according to Gallup. Given this, lawmakers want to “do no harm” in the eyes of voters, and so they plan to do only the bare minimum before they close up shop in a couple of weeks in order to campaign full time.

The Nov. 4 elections, in which Democrats could well lose control of the Senate, will color everything, including emerging urgent issues such as the swift rise of the Islamic State or IS (sometimes called ISIS or ISIL). Here are three ways in which voters can expect the approaching elections to influence Congress:

Consulting, not voting, on the Islamic State: The congressional leadership will meet with President Obama on Tuesday afternoon to discuss the administration’s strategy to roll back the Islamic State. On Wednesday, the president will explain his strategy in a televised national address. Watch for hearings on the issue, and for Republicans and Democrats in both houses to introduce legislation that grants congressional authorization for US military strikes against the IS.

But don’t expect Congress to necessarily vote on these measures, at least not in these next few weeks. Military action is a risky topic for lawmakers who face voters in less than two months. “Few observers expect lawmakers to actually vote on authorizing force,” reported Lisa Mascaro in the Los Angeles Times on Monday, though at some point, “lawmakers may no longer be able to sit on the sidelines,” especially if the administration needs more money for strikes, she wrote.

Sort-of solving immediate problems: Despite last December’s bipartisan deal on a budget, Congress has not been able to follow through with an actual budget resolution or spending bills for fiscal year 2015. With a Sept. 30 deadline looming (that’s when the federal government runs out of money), the plan is to pass what’s known as a “continuing resolution.” That would fund the government at the present level, probably through early December, while a lame-duck Congress could more safely nail down the details.

The reason for filling this can just a little bit, and then kicking it down the road, is that spending is a magnet for disruptive partisanship, and lawmakers fear that the shutdown politics waged over the budget last fall might resurface. The partial shutdown sent congressional approval to a historic low.

Congress may similarly handle another issue facing a Sept. 30 deadline – the reauthorization of the Export-Import Bank, which provides loans and insurance to foreign companies to help them buy US goods. Some conservatives call this “crony capitalism” and want to kill the bank. The US Chamber of Commerce and others support it. Talk now is of a short-term extension of the bank to avoid a pre-election blowup over the issue.

Voting that excites the base: Monday evening will feature a perfect example of what Senate minority leader Mitch McConnell (R) of Kentucky calls a “show vote.” These are votes on legislation designed to excite one party’s base and get those voters to the polls. But the bills can’t win backing from the other party, and so will never become law.

On Monday, Senate Democrats are expected to support a constitutional amendment that overturns a controversial Supreme Court ruling, known as Citizens United, that lifted limits on corporate and union campaign donations – anathema to Republicans who view donations as free speech.

"Across the country, candidates in blue, purple, and red states are demonstrating that campaigning on public financing of elections and a constitutional amendment to overturn Citizens United is the way to excite the electorate – and win elections," said Adam Green, co-founder of the Progressive Change Campaign Committee, a political action committee, in a statement Monday.

Senate Democrats plan to bring other messaging bills to the floor. They could include raising the minimum wage to $10.10 an hour, making it easier to refinance student debt, and guaranteeing contraception coverage under the Affordable Care Act.

Of course, the Republican-controlled House has its own messaging agenda.

House leaders plan to reintroduce a number of measures that Republicans have already passed, but that went nowhere in the Senate. They will be repackaged into two broad bills – one that highlights jobs and another related to energy. 

Speaker John Boehner (R) of Ohio wants to use them to remind voters of the obstructionist Democrats in the other chamber. The bills are, he reportedly told House Republicans in a conference call last week, the party’s “closing argument” before election day.

of stories this month > Get unlimited stories
You've read  of  free articles. Subscribe to continue.

Unlimited digital access $11/month.

Get unlimited Monitor journalism.