It may only be June jitters, but murmurs of a potentially busy and raucous congressional lame-duck session in November and December are already building as unfinished work stacks up and legislative days before the Nov. 4 elections dwindle.
When lawmakers break June 26 for their Independence Day recess, they will have just 28 scheduled work days left in Washington before voters go to the polls to decide the makeup of the new Congress that will convene in January.
But the stack of unresolved legislation in this Congress is growing higher and higher, including a bill to renew dozens of tax breaks that expired last December and the full array of appropriations bills for the new fiscal year starting on Oct. 1. Decisions are also needed on miscellaneous tariffs, terrorism risk insurance, the Trade Adjustment Assistance program, rechartering the Export-Import Bank, replenishing the Highway Trust Fund, and passing a new surface-transportation bill.
"We've got to start getting things done," said House Minority Whip Steny Hoyer on Tuesday, conceding that a busy postelection scenario in November and December is emerging.
But even then, Hoyer said, lawmakers' ability to accomplish things as the lame-duck Congress serves out its final weeks at year's end could be in doubt, "depending on the outcome of the election."
Any postelection mix of activity must also include a full slate of leadership elections for both parties, which could themselves prove to be fractious and consuming. And then there's the wild card of a potential Republican takeover of the Senate if the midterms go their way.
Whether a shift in Senate control would inspire more lame-duck action or push more decisions into the next Congress is already a topic of early speculation. On the one hand, Senate Democrats would want to exercise their majority powers before becoming the minority, but some might want to hand off a few legislative headaches to the GOP.
Finally, there are questions about whether another looming debt-ceiling crisis and nervousness about it on Wall Street could impact lame-duck posturing. Congress reached agreement early this year on suspending a statutory cap on the nation's ability to borrow money to pay its bills, but only through March 16, 2015.
At this point, there's more than a month's worth of legislative days to deal with unfinished business. But upcoming breaks after lawmakers return to Washington on July 8 include the entire month of August, half of September, and all but two days of October — a crazy-quilt schedule for the remaining days of this Congress.
While Hoyer is pressing for a stepped-up pace of action on legislative items he says need to be addressed, there was no response Tuesday from the office of Eric Cantor, whose role as majority leader will end July 31.
Here are some early predictions from other lawmakers and senior legislative aides of how action on various bills will play out:
- Agreement is expected by the House and Senate on extending some of the expired tax provisions, but not until the lame-duck session. It remains unclear which ones will be renewed.
- Approval is also expected before the August recess for at least some short-term extensions of both the Highway Trust Fund (which is expected to reach a zero balance in late July) and a surface-transportation bill (which expires Sept. 30). But intense debate continues over how to pay for replenishing the highway fund before it goes dry during the height of the summer construction season.
- "Obviously," Hoyer says, not all of the 12 annual spending bills will be passed before the Oct. 1 start of the new fiscal year. Most on the Hill see the House and Senate eventually taking up some type of omnibus package with several of the finished bills tied together, and also enacting a short-term continuing resolution to keep all government agencies running until after the election.
- Rechartering the Export-Import Bank is seen as more likely after the election, although its current charter expires on Sept. 30. The little-known bank makes taxpayer-backed loans to help overseas entities buy U.S. products. But many conservatives, including House Financial Services Committee Chairman Jeb Hensarling, oppose its rechartering. Even so, the bank won't close its doors on Sept. 30 even if that deadline is missed.