Hawkings: As Congress Returns for 9-Week Slog, 5 Areas Are Ripe for Compromise

Congress returns Monday afternoon for its longest run of the year — nine straight weeks when the lights will be on in at least one chamber. And, for so many glimmers of policymaking hope, it’s getting close to now-or-never time.

The House will be gone again in two weeks, the Senate will take off all of Memorial Day week and the House will be dark again the first week in June. But the next bicameral break is not until June 30 through July 4.

But don’t be fooled by the slog from spring into summer that’s now getting started. For the 113th Congress, it’s later than you may think.

After Independence Day, there are just four weeks until the August recess, which lasts five weeks, including the week starting on Labor Day, followed by maybe as few as a dozen days in session before early October. That’s when the House majority leadership has promised members they can go home to campaign full time, and the Senate’s likely to follow suit.

That’s not much time for genuine legislating, especially given that both parties plan to spend much of the time using the Capitol as a sound stage for their political messaging. This week, for example, the Democrats who run the Senate will make a big show of their obviously-going-nowhere legislation to raise the minimum wage by 39 percent in just two years. And the Republicans who run the House will go after headlines with their entirely-for-show vote to hold former IRS official Lois Lerner in contempt of Congress for refusing to testify about the agency’s scrutiny of conservative political groups.

But there are still dozens of members in both parties working in the shadows toward deals that would refute the conventional wisdom that nothing will get done this election year. Serious talks are under way about how to finance the next generation of road construction, once the highway trust fund is emptied later in the year; how to meaningfully shrink the Postal Service’s overhead, and how to get a majority of House Republicans to “yes” on an immigration overhaul.

Any breakthroughs on those fronts are probably a season away. But here are five areas that remain ripe for important accomplishment in the next two months:

Spending: Optimism has vanished about getting all dozen appropriations bills cleared by the start of the fiscal year, a hallmark of regular order last achieved 20 years ago. But a record early start to the process, thanks to the agreement on the $1.014 trillion spending grand total sealed last year, has created a realistic expectation that at least a handful of the measures will be enacted à la carte before November, which last happened during Barack Obama’s first year as president.

The House is on course to pass its first two fiscal 2015 bills this week: $71.5 billion for military construction and veterans programs, and $3.3 billion for the legislative branch (except the Senate, which gets to propose its own budget.) Appropriations Chairman Harold Rogers, R-Ky., wants to get the other 10 bills through the House by the end of June. Across the Capitol, Senate Appropriations Chairwoman Barbara A. Mikulski, D-Md., has been promised two weeks of floor time in June and two more in July, so she can push for Senate passage of some stand-alone bills for the first time in three years.

Because the spending levels are locked in and mostly unchanged from this year (and because other policymaking bills will be few and far between) the main challenge for these chairmen is shielding their measures from contentious policy riders that might stop them in their tracks — on such hot-button matters as telephone records surveillance, terrorism suspect treatment, gun control, immigration, environmental regulation and, of course, Obamacare.

Housing: An acid test comes Tuesday for the long-shot drive to overhaul the housing finance system. The Senate Banking Committee will take up a bipartisan bill that would retain an explicit federal backstop behind the mortgage market, something many Republicans want to do away with, while eventually getting rid of mortgage financiers Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac — as well as their mission to promote affordable housing, something many Democrats hold dear.

The compromise looks to have the 12 votes necessary for approval, but a bigger majority will be needed for Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., to schedule a floor debate. And it would take a lopsided bipartisan vote for passage to generate any interest from the House GOP leadership, because their members are solidly in favor of getting the government out of the home loan business.

Patents: Another crucial Senate markup on a carefully calibrated bipartisan compromise is planned for May 1 in the Judiciary Committee. It would crack down on a dull-sounding problem that’s bedeviling business innovation: The surge in frivolous litigation alleging patent infringements.

To spice things up a bit, the entities who file the lawsuit have been dubbed “patent trolls.” They seek to make money by purchasing patents without any interest in making a product or providing a service — then suing companies with deep pockets and incentives to settle quickly, often by paying a licensing fee to the troll. The challenge has been devising changes in the civil litigation system that make life more difficult for the trolls (who tend to prey on software and technology companies) without hobbling legitimate companies (pharmaceutical makers, especially) trying to combat genuine patent infringements

A solid bipartisan vote in committee might pave the way for speedy passage and then accord with the House, which passed its version of the bill with 325 votes in December. The White House is eager to help broker a deal before the election, so Obama can say he did something prominent this year to help the business community.

Energy: As soon as this week, the Senate will take up legislation with potential to embody something highly unusual in an election year: a bipartisan deal to change energy policy.

The scope of the measure, which has been on the drawing board longer than three years, remains modest. It would seek to improve the nation’s energy efficiency through modest grants to states and cities for drafting stricter building codes, incentives for manufacturers to reduce their carbon footprints and the creation of energy-savings guidelines for federal buildings. Sponsors Jeanne Shaheen, D-N.H., and Rob Portman, R-Ohio, believe they have sufficient votes to ward off all extraneous or poison-pill amendments — even now that Shaheen’s re-election contest has grown more competitive, which might tempt some GOP senators to scuttle the measure so she’s denied a legislative triumph during the campaign.

If the bill passes in its current form, a lobbying effort will intensify to persuade the GOP House to embrace it.

Taxes: With a comprehensive rewrite and simplification of the IRS rulebook shelved for the year, lawmakers have committed themselves to once again reviving and extending a dog’s breakfast of niche tax benefits. (For businesses, there are broad breaks for corporate research and development along with investing in new business equipment — and narrow breaks for horse owners and race tracks. For individuals, there are tax breaks for paying college tuition, making energy-efficient home improvements and commuting by subway or bicycle.)

In the coming month, the Senate will debate a package extending more than four dozen provisions through the end of next year, at a 10-year cost to the Treasury of about $85 billion. That’s the customary route for the “extenders” — a hodgepodge designed so that a lawmaker committed to one narrow provision has to vote for them all. But retiring Ways and Means Chairman Dave Camp, R-Mich., aspires to do the opposite — move every extension as a rifle-shot bill (but with no expiration date) so that advocates for every break must assemble their own House majority.

That could take a while. But all lawmakers know full well that much of the year’s heaviest legislative lifting and biggest breakthroughs will inevitably be postponed until the lame-duck session that starts Nov. 12, eight days after the election, and might well continue until close to Christmas.