Summer break over, must-do tasks await Congress
WASHINGTON (AP) - Summer break over and elections ahead, Congress is beginning an abbreviated September session with must-do tasks of preventing a government shutdown and extending a freeze on taxing access to the Internet.
Lawmakers will find time, too, for votes conveying political messages primed for fall campaigning.
Republicans who run the House may have lousy approval ratings, but they are poised to pad their 34-vote majority and determined to avoid mistakes like last year's partial government shutdown. That fight was over implementation of President Barack Obama's health care law.
Now, the GOP is pressing for drama-free passage of a temporary spending bill to prevent a federal shutdown at month's end and fund government agencies past the Nov. 4 election into mid-December. The Senate is sure to go along if that measure is kept free of objectionable add-ons.
House Republicans also plan votes aimed at drawing attention to legislation they say would boost jobs and energy production.
"We're set up to paint a very stark contrast between ourselves and the Democrats who run Washington - if we take advantage of it by getting our work done and getting our message out," House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, told colleagues in a conference call last week.
Boehner said that message - "our closing argument," he called it - would focus on ways to get people back to work and" restore opportunity" for Americans.
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., seems most intent on getting endangered incumbents from Alaska, Arkansas, Louisiana and North Carolina back campaigning as soon as possible.
He is planning to adjourn the Senate by Sept. 23 after dispensing with the spending measure and holding votes - destined to lose - on Democratic planks such as raising the minimum wage and blocking the flow of unlimited, unregulated campaign cash from the wealthy, including the billionaire Koch brothers.
There are few must-pass items that require cooperation between the feuding House and Senate.
Atop the list is the spending measure to keep agencies funded at current levels through mid-December. That would give House and Senate negotiators ample time to work out a trillion-dollar-plus bill during a lame-duck session after Election Day.
Boehner is looking to settle a split among Republicans over reauthorizing the Export-Import Bank, which provides credit guarantees that help foreign buyers purchase U.S. exports such as Boeing airplanes and heavy equipment built by Caterpillar.
Many conservative Republicans, including House Financial Services Committee Chairman Jeb Hensarling of Texas, oppose extending the bank's authority. But Democrats and a host of business-friendly Republicans may have the upper hand.
GOP aides said it's likely that an interim deal would extend the bank until perhaps early next year.
Also in play is a freeze that prevents state and local governments from taxing access to the Internet.
Under current law, the freeze expires Nov. 1, exposing Internet users to the same kind of connection fees that often show up on telephone bills. Legislation to extend the tax moratorium is expected to be attached to the must-do spending bill, according to senior House GOP aide.
The aide spoke on condition of anonymity to speak candidly about internal party deliberations.
Republicans and Democrats are clamoring for legislation authorizing Obama to use military force against Islamic State militants in Iraq and Syria. But the abbreviated session and a lack of consensus raise doubts about whether any congressional action is possible.
Obama plans to meet with congressional leaders at the White House on Tuesday and give a speech Wednesday as he begins laying out a strategy for fighting the Islamic State threat.
Some lawmakers say the president has the power to act under the 1973 War Powers Resolution and no new permission is necessary. Several Republicans say they are unwilling to grant Obama blanket authority without a detailed strategy from the administration.
The issue that dominated lawmakers' attention in the final days before recess - the crisis of unaccompanied children at the border with Mexico - has faded because their numbers have dropped sharply in the hot summer months. Congress never came to agreement on Obama's emergency spending request to deal with the matters, and there's unlikely to be an effort to revisit it.
With the list of must-do items so short, expect votes aimed at motivating each party's core supporters.
In a memo to Republican lawmakers last week, House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., outlined some politically motivated pieces of the GOP's September agenda, including votes on bills to promote energy production and ease taxes and regulations on businesses.
Reid planned a test vote Monday on a symbolic but futile attempt to amend the Constitution to give Congress the power to set stricter limits on campaign cash.
Reid said last month that he may force new votes on failed measures to raise the minimum wage, make college more affordable and guarantee contraception coverage despite the Supreme Court's Hobby Lobby decision that said employers with religious objections could opt out of the new health care law's birth control mandate.