Policy

5 Issues to Watch When Congress Returns in September

Zika funding, appropriations bills, criminal justice overhaul on the to-do list

House Speaker Paul D. Ryan and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell will have their hands full in September. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call file photo)

Lawmakers will have plenty to do when they return in September after seven weeks away from Capitol Hill. Here are five issues to watch this fall before members of Congress leave the nation’s capital again in October to hit the campaign trail:

Zika Funding

Increasing concerns about the Zika virus amid news of mosquito transmissions on U.S. soil prompted a few lawmakers to call on Congress to return to the Capitol early to address funding to combat the virus. But that looks unlikely as the standoff over funding continues. Senators will once again face off on the package when they return after Labor Day. In June, the House adopted a conference report on Zika which allocates $1.1 billion in funds but includes language Democrats find objectionable.

[Administration Sitting on Unspent Funds for Zika]

Before the summer recess, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky set up another procedural vote in September. Democrats have twice blocked the package from moving forward. They cited a breakdown in negotiations amid GOP divisions and oppose provisions in the package relating to spending cut offsets, the availability of birth control, and insecticide spraying near water sources. Without a way forward and with no one backing down, the vote could fail again.

[Senate Democrats Block $1.1 Billion to Fight Zika]

House Republicans seem even less keen to budge. Speaker Paul D. Ryan said before the recess that Democrats “need to drop politics” and adopt the conference report.

Appropriations/Continuing Resolution

The most pressing issue lawmakers will face this fall is how to fund the government beyond the end of the fiscal year, Sept. 30. Since the House has passed only five appropriations bills and the Senate has passed only three — out of 12 — they do not have the time to complete the appropriations process. Both Ryan and McConnell have said they’ll continue to pass as many bills as possible, while acknowledging that a temporary continuing resolution (CR) will likely be necessary to keep the government running.

[Congress Struggling to Finish To-Do List Before Summer Break]

The debate among House Republicans is whether such a resolution should last through December, while President Barack Obama is still in office, or through March, when there will be a new administration in place. Conservatives have argued that negotiations in lame-duck sessions have not gone well for Republicans. “Trying to get something done with this president is not likely to have a preferential outcome,” House Republican Study Committee Chairman Bill Flores said.

[No, Congress Won't Get More Productive Come Fall]

Oklahoma Rep. Tom Cole, an appropriations subcommittee chairman, is in favor of finishing the appropriations process by year’s end, regardless of which party prevails in November. He also argued that Republicans have a strong hand now with control of the House and the Senate and that it’s unknown how the election will affect that.

Republicans say they will  continue to work on passing individual appropriations bills as a foundation for negotiating a larger appropriations measure later this year or next. That could include a new vote on an energy and water spending bill that failed in May, Flores said. Senate Democrats blocked a defense spending bill from moving forward in July, and McConnell teed up another procedural vote for when they return.

Gun Control Politicking

Expect House Democrats to keep fighting for votes to keep people on terrorist watch lists from buying guns and to expand background checks. Although it’s unlikely they will succeed, previous Democratic floor protests have delayed legislative business.

Even a GOP-backed bill lacked the support to pass, so leadership indefinitely delayed a vote on the measure. It’s unclear whether Republicans will reintroduce their bill in September or simply try to ignore the issue.

More likely to continue: A bipartisan working group with six House Republicans and six Democrats focused on improving relations between law enforcement and the African-American community. The group held its first meeting shortly before Congress recessed.

[House Working Group on Police-Community Relations Begins Meeting]

The Senate is not likely to take up any gun control measures, having rejected four bills in June. Connecticut Democrat Christopher S. Murphy, who led a nearly 15-hour filibuster forcing the votes, said in a recent interview he will take the issue to the campaign trail.

[Gun Violence Takes Center Stage at the Democratic Convention]   

That’s a departure from recent election years in which Democrats kept mum lest they turn off pro-gun voters in swing states. “We’re only back for a few weeks in September,” Murphy said. “Republicans have made it very clear they’re not giving us any votes on the issue, so I’m going to be traveling the country, working for Democrats who are going to help us make a difference on anti-gun violence.”

Criminal Justice Overhaul

Ryan said last month that the House will take up legislation to overhaul the criminal justice system in September. He said the Judiciary Committee has already approved four bills and is hoping to mark up two more as part of the package that would come to the floor.

[House to Take Up Criminal Justice Overhaul in September]

However, the package could be larger. The Judiciary Committee has actually approved 11 bills to overhaul criminal sentencing requirements, the prison and re-entry system and federal criminal procedures.

“These bills ensure that federal laws and regulations effectively and appropriately punish wrongdoers, protect individual freedom, safeguard civil liberties, work as efficiently and fairly as possible, do not impede state efforts, and do not waste taxpayer dollars,” a Judiciary Committee aide said.

[Cotton: Criminal Justice Bill 'Dead' in Congress]

The Senate has been working separately on a bipartisan criminal justice overhaul measure, but it’s unlikely to make it to the floor this Congress, Senate Minority Whip Richard J. Durbin said in a recent interview. "I just can't get any signal from McConnell that he'll call it. … I think he's afraid of it,” he said.

IRS Commissioner Impeachment

On the last day of the July session, House Freedom Caucus members attempted to force a vote to impeach IRS Commissioner John Koskinen by filing notice of their intent to offer a privileged resolution. Leadership had two legislative days to schedule a vote on the matter. Those two days expired last month since the House met in a few pro forma sessions.

[Conservatives Try to Force Vote on IRS Commissioner Impeachment]

Freedom Caucus members said in July they would likely offer the resolution again when they return. “We’re committed to doing whatever we think has to be done,” said Rep. Jim Jordan of Ohio, the caucus chairman. 

North Carolina Republican Mark Meadows, a founding member of the caucus, said the group is committed to ensuring that a vote takes place “unless there’s a compelling case that’s made on why that should not happen.”

[Critics Present Their Case Against IRS Chief Koskinen]   

Ryan said the House Republican Conference would discuss the IRS issue in September since many members are not familiar with it.

Meanwhile, while Congress is in recess, we explore what they really do back home with Editor David Hawkings.
Meanwhile, while Congress is in recess, we explore what lawmakers really do back home with Roll Call Senior Editor David Hawkings.

Rema Rahman and Niels Lesniewski contributed to this report.

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