4 Major Battles Loom For Congress


Last fall’s government shutdown and subsequent two-year budget accord injected a sense of hope that Congress would be able to keep important federal programs running this year without partisan fights that threaten disruptions.

But election-year considerations and a Republican party hungry for confrontation with President Barack Obama have dimmed prospects for a drama-free summer. Congress has 12 working days before the five-week August recess. After that it’ll have a mere 10 working days before federal agencies and programs will need to be funded to avert a government shutdown on Oct. 1.

1. Obama’s $3.7 billion request for border crisis

An issue burning up national headlines is the influx of over 52,000 unaccompanied children at the Southern border in recent months. To address the crisis, Obama has requested $3.7 billion in funding to relieve the burden on the Department of Homeland Security and expedite the processing of these young migrants.

But Republicans — who claim the president’s policies incubated the crisis — have balked. Some don’t want to give him any new money to spend; others want to use the supplemental as a vehicle to attach longer-term border security measures. For now, the Democratic-led Senate is waiting to see how the Republican-led House responds to Obama’s request.

If the two parties cannot reach an agreement, the crisis is expected to escalate. Housing facilities are already overwhelmed and the immigration system will take months or years to figure out which of the child migrants qualify for asylum, which of them will have to return home and to gather the resources to send them home.

2. Keeping the government open

The federal government will partially shut down on Oct. 1 unless Congress passes legislation to renew funding by then. Both parties have agreed to $1.014 trillion in discretionary spending in fiscal year 2015 under the Ryan-Murray budget deal. But extraneous issues are gumming up the works and raising concerns among aides that Congress may have to resort to a stopgap measure to keep the government — including the Pentagon — functioning at full capacity.

In the House, Republicans have attached a provision to appropriations legislation blocking implementation of the president’s rules on coal-fired power plants to curb climate change. In the Senate, the process has reached a stalemate as Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) demands a vote on his amendment to undermine the coal restrictions, and Democrats decline his request and halt consideration of the bills.

Senate Appropriations Chair Barbara Mikulski (D-MD) isn’t giving up just yet. “We’re hoping not [to have to do a continuing resolution],” said Vince Morris, her spokesman. “We are trying to get our bills done by Oct 1.”

3. Export-Import Bank

The Export-Import Bank, which financially supports U.S. exports worth billions of dollars and thousands of jobs, has existed since 1934 but it is suddenly in jeopardy due to House conservatives who view it as a bastion of corporate welfare and crony capitalism. Incoming House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-CA), House Budget Chair Paul Ryan (R-WI) and Financial Services Chair Jeb Hensarling (R-TX) all oppose reauthorizing Ex-Im. But Republicans are divided: a significant number of them want to renew the bank’s charter.

On the other side, the White House, Democrats, the Chamber of Commerce and manufacturers are united for reauthorizing the bank. The timing of its expiration coincides with the Oct. 1 government funding deadline, so it could theoretically become a flashpoint in a potential standoff. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV) has declined to speculate if he’ll tie it to government funding legislation.

The big question is whether the House plays ball and perhaps negotiates a deal to renew it. It’s not looking good for Ex-Im: Boehner’s spokesman Michael Steel said Monday he is deferring for now to Hensarling, a vigorous opponent who has called for shutting the bank down. (Hensarling is also being drafted by conservative activists to challenge Boehner for House Speaker.)

4. Highway trust fund

The trust fund for highways and bridges will run dry as early as August if Congress doesn’t renew funding, putting at risk active transportation projects, the White House said. There’s bipartisan agreement that the program’s funding must continue and there are measures in the House and Senate to add $10 billion to the trust fund through May 2015 and avert insolvency.

Obama is planning an offensive this week with a new White House report on the economic benefits of investing in transportation and a visit to an infrastructure project in Delaware. Governors — Democrats and Republicans — are urging a resolution to replenish the trust fund. “This week Congress will consider a solution to avoid [a lapse in highway funding], and the President will continue to urge Republican lawmakers to not block it,” a White House official said.

But in this Congress, the prospects for gridlock and inaction should always be taken seriously. Some lawmakers want to pass a longer reauthorization and create new revenue streams, such as a gas tax. Many Democrats and a few Republicans are on board but that effort faces strong opposition from House GOP leaders.