Congress will return to the Capitol next week after its leisurely summer vacation. But it'll really just be a pit stop for lawmakers on their way back out to the campaign trail ahead of the November midterm elections.
"September is going to be brief, but busy," House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) told Republican members on a conference call Wednesday, according to a person on the call. The House is slated to be in session for just nine full days over three weeks before the election, and the Senate – which pretty much just wings it when it comes to a schedule – probably won't be in D.C. much longer than that.
The most important thing the House and Senate have to do in September is to pass legislation to prevent a government shutdown after federal funding expires at the end of the month.
"Everyone is interested in not having a big crisis and getting out of Washington and back on the campaign trail as soon as possible," Rep. Tom Cole (R-Okla.), an ally of the GOP leadership, told The Wire on Thursday.
Lawmakers will also try to approve at least a short-term extension of the Export-Import Bank, a federal lending agency that helps businesses find markets overseas.
Oh, and some members want Congress to declare war on the Islamic State while its in town, but it's unlikely they'll find the time.
The federal government's coffers will run dry at the end of the fiscal year on Sept. 30, and Republican leaders want to keep the lights on until after the November election with as little drama as possible.
That's often easier said than done, however, and there are a few issues that could trip the leadership up.
One is the possibility that President Obama will issue his long-awaited executive order granting temporary legal status to millions of undocumented immigrants. Some conservatives have warned that this could lead to a shutdown because they will demand to use the funding measure, known as a continuing resolution, to try to block the president's order. But Obama is now seen as likely to delay his immigration move until after the election.
Another possible obstacle is the Senate, where there has been talk of attaching to the spending bill a provision to reauthorize the Export Import Bank, which many conservatives oppose. For now, congressional aides in both the House and the Senate told The Wire that leaders wanted to keep the continuing resolution "as clean and straightforward as possible." The bill is likely to keep the government open until through mid-December at current spending levels, although as one Republican aide said, "no decisions on dates have been made."
A Senate aide said Thursday that the upper chamber was likely to wait for the House to act on a spending bill rather than passing one of its own.
The relatively obscure bank has been around for 80 years and has historically drawn bipartisan support, but its existence is threatened by the rise of conservatives who believe it's a prime example of corporate welfare. The leader of that faction, is Rep. Jeb Hensarling (R-Tex.), the chairman of the House Financial Services Committee, which has jurisdiction over the bank. The bank's current charter expires on Sept. 30, and Hensarling has been waging a campaign to let it die. But under pressure from more traditional Chamber of Commerce-aligned Republicans, he is in talks with Boehner's office on a short-term extension. According to an aide, Hensarling would possibly agree to back a short extension if he could use that time to persuade more Republicans that the bank should be wound down entirely.
Hensarling spokesman David Popp said in a statement that despite a Wednesday report to the contrary, "there is no agreement" to extend the Export Import Bank.
Chairman Hensarling is continuing to discuss the issue with members and is opposed to reauthorizing Ex-Im because Washington shouldn’t pick winners and losers, and hardworking American taxpayers — who are already under tremendous stress — shouldn’t be forced to pay for foreign corporate welfare that advantages a handful of powerful, politically-connected corporations.”
The risk for House Republicans is that if they don't do anything on the bank, the Senate will try to attach a much longer reauthorization to the must-pass government spending bill, which could threaten a shutdown that Boehner and his allies desperately want to avoid.
War With ISIL
The videotaped beheadings of two U.S. journalists by the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant in recent weeks has spawned new calls for Congress to vote on authorization of force resolution against the terrorist group, if not a formal declaration of war.
President Obama's team has argued that his airstrikes against ISIL in Iraq do not need Congress's approval, but some lawmakers in both parties have called on him to expand the military campaign to target the terrorists' safe haven in Syria. Rep. Frank Wolf (R-Va.) said Wednesday he planned to introduce a broad resolution authorizing Obama to go after terrorists abroad, and Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), the leading GOP hawk, said Wednesday Congress shouldn't leave Washington until it votes on an authorization of force, Roll Call reported.
The new House majority leader, Rep. Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.), was evasive in an interview on The Hugh Hewitt Show on Wednesday, but he suggested he was open to House action:
And if the president won’t act, I think we have to take some action to move forward."
In a memo to House Republicans on Thursday, McCarthy said the Obama administration had been "too passive" in confronting terrorist organizations overseas, and he said he expected administration officials would brief members on the ISIL. But McCarthy made no mention of legislative action in September.
In the conference call Thursday, Boehner said only that conversations about House action would continue.
Congress would have to get its act together quickly to draft, debate and pass a resolution in the few short weeks it's in session this month.
And as Rep. Adam Smith (D-Wash.), the top Democrat on the House Armed Services Committee, told The Wire last month, "I just don’t see us being able to pull something like that together."
Most everything else the House plans to do involves what Boehner described as the GOP's "closing argument" to voters ahead of the election. That includes packages of jobs, energy and healthcare bills that the Democratic Senate in all likelihood will ignore. As Boehner put it on the call with his members:
We’re set up to paint a very stark contrast between ourselves and the Democrats who run Washington – if we take advantage of it by getting our work done and getting our message out."
Another bill the House plans to pass, McCarthy wrote, is a resolution formally disapproving of Obama's decision to release five Taliban detainees from Guantanamo Bay in exchange for the return of Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl.