While many eyes will be directed at the fireworks expected during Thursday’s GOP debates, a more ominous storm is looming over Capitol Hill, where lawmakers are set to leave for their long August break, despite facing a number of high-stakes deadlines right around the corner. When lawmakers return, they will be under an intense time crunch to resolve battles over everything from Iran to Planned Parenthood funding to a possible government shutdown.
Adding to the chaos is a White House race where GOP contenders in the Senate will be looking to make a splash. Congress will come back the week after Labor Day — which falls especially late this year — and its tight window will be further interrupted by two Jewish holidays and Pope Francis’ visit to the Capitol.
Here are the battles to watch out for:
Can hawks block the White House’s Iran deal?
Republicans have been unrelenting in their criticisms of the nuclear deal the Obama administration ironed out with Iran, and the 2016 trail has further inflamed that rhetoric. However, hawkish lawmakers face an uphill battle in blocking the deal, needing, essentially, a super-majority in both chambers to block it.
Both sides have until September 17 — when the 60 days Congress has to weigh the deal expires — to make their case. Attention has settled on the Democrats who may be swayed to the anti-deal side, with top Senate Dem Chuck Schumer (NY) chief among them. So far, the White House’s full court press has been mostly successful, but deal opponents have a well-financed lobbying campaign to their advantage.
Will Congress shut down the government?
Negotiations over must-pass budget legislation were thorny enough, as a 2013 compromise giving some relief to sequestration is also about to expire. But a fight over ending federal funding to Planned Parenthood over an anti-abortion video “sting” campaign has thrown a new wrench into the matter.
Unable to advance a standalone bill to defund Planned Parenthood — which receives federal support for non-abortion services — conservatives are now pressing that a provision blocking funding be tied to the budget bill that would keep the government running past the end of September. Dems would likely block such an effort and White House has reiterated it will veto any spending measure defunding the reproductive health program.
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell has suggested the two parties will be able to negotiate their way through the situation and said there will be “no more government shutdowns.”
But will Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX), the 2016 candidate who led the previous shutdown over Obamacare, listen?
Can a short-term highway bill be turned into long-term legislation?
Despite McConnell’s best efforts to push a long-term bill to finance federal highway construction, House leaders opted to head out of town early, with only a short-term extension to send to the Senate. The issue, which had already become the site for other proxy battles, has now been punted until Oct. 29, when the three-month deal expires. If Congress misses the deadline entirely, much-needed construction projects on the nation’s roads and bridges will come screeching to a halt.
Will the Export-Import Bank be reauthorized?
Facing opposition from staunch conservatives, the charter for the Export-Import Bank — a little-known government financial institution that provides credit international corporate deals — expired July 1. Despite having the support of Democrats and business-aligned Republicans, lawmakers have been unable to reauthorize its operations. It has been reported that some businesses have already lost out on projects due to the fate of the Ex-Im Bank being in jeopardy.
Are lawmakers heading towards another debt ceiling showdown?
Any stray arguments not resolved in the budget or highway negotiations could pop if Congress chooses to, yet again, make a fuss about raising the debt ceiling.
The U.S. government technically hit its borrowing limit in mid-March and since, the Treasury Department has scrambled in a series of “extraordinary measures” to stretch its cash flow. Treasury Secretary Jacob J. Lew has said those measures will last through the end of October and perhaps a little longer.
Twice before in recent years, Republicans have used the threat of a government default to play politics, and at least one influential lawmaker has signaled he’d be willing to use the debt ceiling again to draw concessions from Democrats.
“I prefer to think about it as opportunities and pinch points,” Rep. Tom Price (R-GA), who rose to the chair of the House Budget Committee this year, told reporters in December.