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One Day in, Climactic Month Slips Into Pope-Inspired Procrastination

Harry Reid and other congressional leaders are looking at a number of deadlines this month. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)

How easy it is to procrastinate during the first month of a new semester, knowing none of the difficult assignments are really due before the end of the term — and especially when there are so many tempting distractions on campus.  

So it is again this fall, at the Capitol as much as in college. Which is why Congress, back in town only one day, is already looking ahead to a shortened September that’s long on theatrics but almost bereft of nose-to-the-grindstone legislative work.  

Wednesday’s main attraction, a media circus in the guise of a rally now featuring Sarah Palin, along with Donald Trump and Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas, is emblematic of the dynamic ahead.  

The declared purpose of the event is to galvanize opposition to the Iran nuclear deal negotiated by the United States and five other countries. But on that score the gathering is effectively pointless, because President Barack Obama has won the backing of more than enough senators to prevent Congress from blocking the agreement.  

The House and Senate are going to press on with their debates, but the bottom line is one of the marquee showdowns expected in September is already over before it’s formally begun. So the only reason to pay attention to the rally (still good enough to distract dozens of members) is to see just how collegial and collaborative the Republican presidential rivals behave on stage.  

With the Iran matter already settled comfortably before time’s up, the only genuinely crucial deadline this month is the end of the fiscal year in three weeks. Starting Thursday, the Senate plans to be in session only 13 more days in September, and the House just 10 days — a sufficient (if hardly generous) amount of time for reaching and ratifying a deal to keep the government entirely open, without interruption, come Oct. 1.  

There have been some bipartisan negotiations at the staff level about the basic terms, and duration, of the first fiscal 2017 continuing resolution. Aides are now passing on their general indecision to the leadership. They have to decide much more than whether their first CR will be freighted with language revoking all $528 million in annual federal aid to Planned Parenthood — as anti-abortion lawmakers demand as punishment for officials of the group discussing fetal tissue sale on hidden cameras.  

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell is openly eager to quash the crusade, because it clearly doesn’t have the votes to succeed and he’s eager to prove Republicans can govern at least as well as they can posture. Speaker John A. Boehner, who’s got less long-term job security than his Kentucky colleague , is going to wait quite a while longer before publicly telling the House’s conservative confrontationalists it’s time to face the vote-counting facts.  

While the Planned Parenthood suspense lingers, the GOP elders and their Appropriations Committee lieutenants have other crucial decisions to make: how “clean” to make the first CR, in terms of policy riders and also spending boosts or cutbacks for targeted agencies, and how long it will last. Those choices are important to determining just how difficult the real endgame might get — and how late it will get played. (Finding the magic grand total for spending, between what the sequester permits and what Obama wants, is not going to be settled anytime soon .)  

A long list of rifle shots in the initial bill means fewer budget and policy priorities left in limbo. And that, paradoxically, is more likely to complicate work on the year-ending appropriations package — whether it’s something closer to an “omnibus,” combining the line-by-line decisions from each of the 12 spending bills stalled at various stages in the House and Senate, or a “full-year CR,” in which the law governing the past year continues on autopilot unless otherwise specified.  

A CR lasting just four weeks is attractive to those envisioning wrapping up an ambitious catchall legislative package by Christmas, because Oct. 29 is the expiration date for the most recent stopgap funding of highway and mass transit programs. Coordinating the appropriations and public works timetables — then extending both, again, until the end-of-year holidays — is seen as being as viable an approach as any for breaking both impasses.  

The consensus continues to solidify that engineering an after-Thanksgiving fiscal cliff is the best way to forge any compromise, on the theory that only then will a critical mass of lawmakers acquiesce in the concept of "too big to fail." And to make sure such a legislative whole is more appealing than the sum of its parts, the finale may include not only appropriations and highways, but also an increase in the debt limit (which can now safely be delayed into December), extensions of the tax breaks expiring at year’s end, the annual Pentagon budget bill and continuations of child nutrition, aviation, pipeline safety and student loan programs.  

Those authorizations also lapse at the end of September, but their fates are sure to take a back seat to one of the biggest congressional theatrical events of all times.  

The Hill is already in the thrall of Pope Francis . His unprecedented address to Congress is now scheduled to last only 105 minutes starting at 9:15 a.m. on Sept. 24. But because the pontiff is planning to greet the Jumbotron-watching faithful massed on the West Front and National Mall (42,000 of whom will be holding congressionally distributed tickets) after his address to a joint meeting of Congress (in English), his appearance is taking on the logistical complexities, security anxiety and media frenzy of an inauguration combined with a State of the Union address.  

The left is praying the pope will prod the world’s most consequential legislature to confront climate change, income inequality and immigration. The right is praying just as hard for Francis to remind lawmakers of the Catholic Church's cultural conservatism.  

Congress itself may be hoping against hope that he offers them absolution — for procrastinating for so much of the legislative year, this month of fresh starts included.

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