As Bills Pile Up, Congress Starts Contemplating a Lame Duck

After the July 4 recess, only 28 legislative days will be left to address a mountain of unfinished business.

House Minority Whip Steny Hoyer (D-MD) speaks at a press conference on immigration reform on Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C., November 13, 2013. 
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Billy House
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Billy House
June 17, 2014, 5:25 p.m.

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.
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