Consumed with the vote over whether to attack Syria, lawmakers return from their summer recess Monday to a capital that will be dominated by the pending decision.
But that is hardly the only issue facing Congress as it begins the fall session. Unresolved battles over government spending, the federal debt, farm policy, immigration reform, and health care implementation also line the docket.
It’s a crowded agenda littered with controversy and some end-of-month deadlines, most notably a Sept. 30 deadline for Congress to pass a spending bill to keep the government from shutting down. Moreover, there are only eight more legislative days scheduled this month, and just 38 left this year.
For an unpopular Congress that has displayed little cohesion and productivity, a sudden and smooth transition to a body capable of posting much-needed accomplishments seems anything but assured.
Here’s some of what’s ahead for the House and Senate this week:
- Legislative leaders were preparing to bring a short-term continuing resolution to keep government running after Sept. 30 to the House floor as early as this week. But a vote could be delayed until next week because of the focus on Syria. House GOP sources say the measure would fund operations at post-sequester annual levels of $988 billion. Whether spending would be extended for one, two, or three months was still being worked out.
- A bill is likely to be considered Tuesday by the House Rules Committee for possible floor action later in the week that would block the federal government from providing subsidies to health insurance exchanges under the Affordable Care Act unless there is a system in place that verifies household income and other eligibility requirements.
- The Senate on Monday is set to vote on two judicial nominees — Valerie Caproni and Vernon Broderick — to the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York.
But Syria will dominate the agenda. President Obama is set to give a national address Tuesday to argue for intervention, and Secretary of State John Kerry, Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel, and Army Gen. Martin Dempsey, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, are set to appear before the House Armed Services Committee to continue their briefings to lawmakers.
The Senate is expected to vote on its version of a use-of-force resolution Wednesday — the 12th anniversary of the 9/11 terror attacks. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., expects to file for cloture on Monday.
While it is still unclear how the House will act on the Syria question, attention to the issue is likely to delay House action on a stand-alone Republican bill to fund the food-stamp program, which GOP leaders say will bring $40 billion in total savings over the next 10 years.
Developments remain fluid surrounding the measure, which sources say includes the $20.5 billion in reforms originally passed by the Agriculture Committee and another $20 billion in other reforms, such as a work requirement for able-bodied adults.
A vote on the bill — which was uncoupled from the farm bill earlier this year — would precede a two-chamber conference to work out a final version. Delaying conference action much longer could push lawmakers up against the Sept. 30 expiration of the current extension of the farm bill.
BUDGET AND APPROPRIATIONS
House GOP leaders hope to move their short-term continuing resolution this week or next, in an effort to keep the government operating beyond Sept. 30 with a minimum of controversy. But this hinges on whether some rank-and-file conservatives make good on their threats to use the measure for a showdown to delay funding for the Affordable Care Act.
Republican Sens. Mike Lee of Utah, Rand Paul of Kentucky, and Ted Cruz of Texas — who are some of the staunchest opponents of Obamacare and have called on Congress to defund the law entirely — are scheduled to speak at a Tuesday “Exempt America From Obamacare Rally” on the Capitol’s West Lawn. Other GOP lawmakers, as well as the heads of several conservative groups, are also slotted to speak during the two-hour event.
The decision to set the funding level for the House’s stop-gap bill at an annual level of $988 billion would be a compromise with the Democratic-led Senate. The GOP-led House had called for a fiscal 2014 budget of $967 billion. The Senate Appropriations Committee has been writing up its spending bills to a topline level of $1.058 trillion for the fiscal year, on the assumption sequestration would be repealed.
Meanwhile, sometime around mid-October, Congress and the White House must wrestle over raising the debt ceiling through some yet-to-be-determined compromise. But they seem to be making little headway. The White House and Senate Democrats continue to say they will not negotiate on the need for a clean debt-limit increase, and they emphasize a need for the country to pay its bills and avoid default. House Speaker John Boehner and other Republicans say they will not raise the debt ceiling without what they view as real cuts in spending.
DEFENSE AND NATIONAL SECURITY
Obama and top administration officials are still trying to round up an international coalition to support a limited military strike to punish Syrian strongman Bashar al-Assad for using chemical weapons against his own people.
Regardless of whether Obama wins or loses his uphill fight this week for congressional backing, either outcome will raise the question: What comes next? And if military action proceeds, some lawmakers have already begun wondering how much it will cost.
At a House Foreign Affairs Committee hearing last week, Rep. Alan Grayson, D-Fla., asked, “Will action take a supplemental appropriation?” Secretary of State John Kerry responded only, “I will say that we will work with Congress on whatever cost that is.”
On Thursday, Navy Rear Adm. Richard Breckenridge is scheduled to testify to the House Armed Services Subcommittee on Seapower and Projection Forces on the topic of “Undersea Warfare Capabilities and Challenges.”
Nuclear Regulatory Commission Chairwoman Allison Macfarlane will face a grilling Tuesday before the House Energy panel’s Environment and the Economy Subcommittee, after a D.C. court’s August ruling that the NRC must put the Yucca Mountain nuclear-waste storage issue back on the table.
The ruling compels the commission to complete its review of the Energy Department’s license application for the Yucca Mountain site. House Republicans have been vocal about their desire to use Yucca as the nation’s nuclear-waste repository, while a bipartisan Senate plan seeks to find alternatives to the long-disputed site. The subcommittee, chaired by Rep. John Shimkus, R-Ill., plans to question Macfarlane about the NRC’s compliance with the court decision.
Senate consideration of the bipartisan energy-efficiency bill sponsored by Sens. Jeanne Shaheen, D-N.H., and Rob Portman, R-Ohio, is expected to be pushed back due to debate on Syria.
The bill, dubbed the Energy Savings and Industrial Competitiveness Act of 2013, was originally slated to be considered by the Senate before the August recess, but a vote on the legislation was delayed until September. It was then tentatively set to see floor time in the Senate on Tuesday. But Senate aides now say the bill will be considered only after Congress has made a decision on Syria.
The new health insurance marketplaces created by Obamacare are set to open in just three short weeks. The summer’s fights over the Affordable Care Act may intensify as the Oct. 1 opening of the online exchanges approaches. Those battles included the GOP attacking the administration’s delay of the employer mandate by one year; questioning the security of the data it will be handling as consumers purchase insurance; and raising concerns about the cost of health insurance once the law is implemented. Democrats defending the law acknowledge there may be some glitches during its rollout this fall.
The House Energy and Commerce’s Subcommittee on Health plans to take an Affordable Care Act “pulse check” Tuesday, focused on “readiness and implementation issues” in the run-up to Oct. 1.
Other things to watch for this fall, although not necessarily this week: work toward a permanent “doc fix” by changing a flawed Medicare physician-payment formula and tightening oversight of pharmaceutical compounding facilities, which mix drugs. Legislation to address each had momentum going into the August recess; we’ll see what happens now that Congress is back.
Immigration-reform advocates have declared the August recess a successful time for their cause, both because of the number of lawmakers who appear more open to citizenship for undocumented immigrants and because of the relative quiet from groups that seek to limit even legal immigration.
But the fall congressional schedule stands to put a kibosh on any momentum these advocates might claim. It’s hard to see a scenario in which Congress is able to deal with immigration reform before November. The issue takes a backseat to a potential military strike in Syria, government funding that runs out at the end of September, and a debt-ceiling fight set to occupy much of October. By November, the calendar will have drifted dangerously close to the 2014 midterm elections, when major legislation will become all but impossible to pass.
Here’s where things stand: The Senate bill remains just as much of a nonstarter among House Republicans as it was when the upper chamber passed their bill in late June. The House has cleared five immigration bills through committees that deal with border security, agricultural workers, interior enforcement, E-Verify, and high-skilled visas.
Only the border-security bill that came out of the House Homeland Security Committee has had any Democratic support. A bipartisan group of seven lawmakers has yet to release a comprehensive plan they have been working on for years, yet they have little incentive to rush to release their bill in the coming weeks when all it stands to gain is criticism, rather than action.
Now back from his European travel, the president will devote this week almost exclusively to Syria. He has canceled a planned trip to California to stay in Washington and will address the nation Tuesday, intensifying his pitch to Congress to give him authorization to launch military strikes to punish Syria for its use of chemical weapons.
Alex Brown, Nancy Cook, George E. Condon Jr., Clare Foran, Catherine Hollander, and Rebecca Kaplan, and Sara Sorcher contributed