The House is back in Washington for almost two full months, but don't look for a lot of breakthroughs: GOP leadership has pared back big-ticket wish lists, choosing instead to sprint for the August recess with a relatively modest legislative agenda.
There is less and less serious talk of an overhaul of immigration, a rewrite of the tax code or replacing the Democrats’ health care law. Instead, it's much more likely the next two months of House floor action — roughly 28 legislative days before a monthlong summer recess — will be consumed by such small-bore economic measures as targeted tax extenders and energy regulation bills. The exception will be appropriations bills, and members and staff are more hopeful than they have been in years past about their chances of passing a full slate before the August break, so they can conference House and Senate spending plans when the chambers return.
With last year’s budget agreement easing the path, members hope to avoid another calamitous fiscal cliff before government funding runs out in September.
While Republican goals on the legislative front are modest, they've set their sights high on oversight, with a series of hearings aimed at holding the White House to account on everything from the Veterans Affairs scandal to the IRS, and Benghazi and the recent Guantánamo Bay prisoner swap.
The trade of five Taliban combatants from Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, for Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl, who had been imprisoned in Afghanistan for the past five years, has Republicans, and even a few Democrats, demanding answers from the administration.
Despite the reluctance to take up larger legislative items once named as major priorities, Republicans hope to transition these oversight and economic measures into a winning messaging package with which to equip members as they head back to campaign in their districts in August.
"You’ll see again and again that the American people's priorities are our priorities when it comes to jobs, the economy, cutting spending, doing our work in regular order when it comes to appropriations bills, oversight when it comes to the deal that led to Sergeant Bergdahl’s release, the VA, the IRS and Benghazi. These are all priorities for the American people,” said Michael Steel, spokesman for Speaker John A. Boehner of Ohio.
Still the legislative road map is not completely devoid of potholes. One major policy issue that must be dealt with before the break is the Highway Trust Fund, due to run out of cash by the end of August, according to the Department of Transportation. That leaves congressional negotiators just the next two months to find a solution.
House Republican leaders issued a memo to their members late last month, proposing a $14 billion to $15 billion yearlong patch to the trust fund, paid for by changes to the Postal Service’s delivery schedule.
The proposal has already been decried by Senate Democrats, conservative outside groups and newspaper editorial boards alike, all noting that it does not provide a long-term revenue source for highway funding. And while House GOP aides concede it is not a perfect plan, they note that there have been no other viable plans put forth to deal with the issue.
President Barack Obama's budget, for instance, called for backfilling the trust fund with revenue taken from business tax reform. And with the midterm elections just months away, neither party will likely broach the idea of increasing the fund's existing revenue stream — a gas tax. House GOP aides said they would look at other plans if the Senate proposes them.
House Republicans will have a chance to discuss their Postal Service idea in a private conference meeting Tuesday morning in the Capitol, the first opportunity to gauge collective reaction to the memo, since most members were back home last week.
More immediately, House Republicans will hold votes this week on small business tax extenders, hoping to pick off Democratic votes and appear proactive as Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid of Nevada said he would not hold votes on tax extenders until after the November elections.
"Our goal," said one GOP aide, "is in part get as many Democrats to vote for this bill as possible to show the administration and Harry Reid that there are a number of Democrats who support these policies and we think there is strong bipartisan support to overcome whatever small objections are on their end."
House Democratic leaders, on the other hand, will make hay of the fact that the proposals are unpaid for, while extensions to their preferred policies, such as unemployment insurance, languish, according to a Democratic leadership aide. That sets up Democrats to drive home their election-year economic message, calling for a UI extension and minimum wage hike, neither of which are likely to be taken up by Republicans.
Republicans will counter with an agenda focused on alleviating what they call the "middle class squeeze," a legislative package that consists of bills rolling back federal regulations and targeting gas prices in time for the annual summer spike in gas costs as families take to the roads for vacation.
In the long term, the House faces expiration of both the Export-Import Bank and the Terrorism Risk Insurance Act, both of which must originate in the Financial Services Committee. Aides said it remains unclear whether either will see floor action before August.