Congress started July - its last full working month before the November election - with a full plate. But it may not have the appetite to handle it all.
At the top of lawmakers’ to-do list is passing at least temporary funding for the Highway Trust Fund, which helps finance major road projects throughout the country and is projected to run out of money by late August.
Both chambers also need to advance a slate of government funding bills that must be passed by Sept. 30 to avert another government shutdown.
Finally, there’s the fight over whether to renew the Export-Import Bank and Obama’s latest request for $3.7 billion in funds to address the border crisis.
But it’s unclear whether a Congress that is already known as one of the least productive on record will get all of that done.
First, time is running out. After this month, the House has just 12 working days planned before the Nov. 4 election. The Senate is scheduled to be in session for September and October, but with control of the chamber at stake in November, few expect that to happen.
And even as they face a series of time-sensitive votes, both parties continue to push symbolic legislation that has little hope of passage but appeals to their respective bases in an election year.
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.), for example, told reporters Tuesday that he was committed to taking action in the Senate to address the Supreme Court’s ruling in the Hobby Lobby case. That decision gave businesses owned by devout Christians the right to refuse to pay for insurance covering contraceptives for female employees.
Sens. Patty Murray (D-Wash.) and Mark Udall (D-Colo.) unveiled a bill on Wednesday to prohibit for-profit companies from denying any health coverage, including contraceptives, guaranteed to their employees under the Affordable Care Act. A companion bill will be introduced by Democrats in the House, though it’s highly unlikely that Republican leaders will allow the plan to get a vote.
The Republican-led House, meanwhile, is preparing to spend one of its remaining work days voting to initiate a lawsuit against Obama for the GOP leadership says has been his failure to execute the nation’s laws as his oath of office requires.
Nevertheless, lawmakers are likely to tick off at least one item from their list.
In a break from gridlock, the House gave approval Wednesday to a compromise measure that would consolidate federal programs that provide job-skills training and help workers find employment. The Senate passed the Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act, 95 to 3, last month.
“This is example of steps that can be taken to help Americans get back to work,” Boehner said before the vote Wednesday. “It’s also an example where you’ve got a bipartisan effort in the House with a bipartisan effort in the Senate coming together to address the needs of the American people.”
But other initiatives that have bipartisan support may not move as quickly. Replenishing the Highway Trust Fund has been a priority for lawmakers in both parties, particularly as the construction season enters its peak. But after an apparent breakthrough before the Fourth of July recess between key House and Senate leaders, both chambers may be again moving on separate tracks.
On Thursday the House Ways and Means Committee plans to vote on a proposal from Chairman Dave Camp (R-Mich.) to provide more than $10 billion in funding to sustain the trust fund through next May. The primary source of funds is through what’s known as “pension smoothing,” which allows businesses to defer payments to pension funds and thus increase the amount of taxable income in the short term.
Senate Finance Committee Chairman Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) was expected to announce a revised proposal Tuesday, though negotiations are continuing with Republican members of the panel. Members of both parties have called the new House proposal insufficient. Republican Bob Corker of Tennessee, who has proposed raising the gas tax to replenish the trust fund, said Camp’s plan amounts to “generational theft” because it relies on borrowing money.
“The kind of patch they’re talking about keeps the indecision out there for months and months,” said Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.), chair of the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee.
Democrats are referring to the looming shortfall of the highway fund as a “Transportation Shutdown” in an attempt to link the issue with last year’s federal government shutdown, which resulted in a major but short-term political hit for Republicans.
Such a shutdown is possible again if lawmakers cannot finish work on appropriations bills by the end of September. The House will vote on its sixth appropriations bill this week, but the Senate has yet to take up a single spending bill because of a long standing dispute between the chamber’s Democratic and Republican leaders over consideration of amendments. Short of a resolution of that dispute, it appears likely Congress will have to resort to passing another short-term spending plan in September to prevent the second government shutdown in a year.
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