Politics

A Final Round for Obama's Wish List

Will president's lame-duck status weigh down his ambitions?

President Barack Obama speaks during a commencement ceremony at Howard University on May 7. If he wants to achieve his final legislative goals, he’ll have to act swiftly. (Al Drago/CQ Roll Call)

Barack Obama vowed to play offense during his final year in office, but the president has precious little time to advance his legislative agenda as Congress returns for a sprint toward two lengthy election-year breaks.  

A president with a history of brittle negotiations with Republican lawmakers has not shied away from ambitious agenda items. They include an emergency spending measure to counter the Zika virus , an overhaul of federal criminal justice policies and a massive trade pact with Asian allies.  

Even though Obama appears to have pockets of GOP support, it is no sure thing that lawmakers will accommodate him before fleeing Washington for the national party conventions and a month-long August recess. Election-year politics, one of the slimmest late-year congressional calendars ever, steadfast Republican opposition to his agenda and his own inability to effectively work with the legislative branch all stand in his way.  

“This month absolutely is crunch time for the president,” said Steve Bell , a former senior Senate aide now with the Bipartisan Policy Center. “I don’t think people realize — even fairly sophisticated ones — what September will be like.  

“They’ll say, ‘We can get this done in September,’” he said, referring to people on Capitol Hill and elsewhere around Washington. “I tell them, ‘In September, they’ll have to do a continuing resolution,” he said, referring to a likely stopgap spending measure to keep the government running.  

Recent history has shown those kinds of short-term spending bills can take weeks to pass. That’s because shutdown-averting bills often become the crucible for battles on so-called “poison pill ” provisions to which one party fiercely objects.  

“That will suck most of the oxygen out of September,” Bell said.  

But before all eyes turn toward the post-Labor Day schedule, lawmakers and the White House have six weeks to make a case for their priorities.  

The Senate plans to be in session just 27 more days before departing for its annual August recess — on July 15, early even by congressional standards. The House is slated to be in for just 21 days before also skipping town on July 15.  

That gives Obama even less time to turn his aspirations into reality.  

[ As Zika Risk Escalates, Congress Heads Out ]  

As the Senate returns late Monday and the House on Tuesday, the White House is pushing members to quickly hammer out an emergency spending measure to combat the Zika virus .  

There are 618 active cases in the United States of the mosquito-borne disease, which causes birth defects and neurological conditions in some adults. None have been contracted inside the country, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

‘No wiggle room’

But senior White House aides warn, unless lawmakers allocate nearly $2 billion more to fight it, a Zika outbreak this summer could be calamitous.  

There is "no wiggle room" in a $1.9 billion emergency Zika supplemental request the White House sent lawmakers in late February, principal deputy press secretary Eric Schultz said May 27, declining to speculate whether Obama would sign a $1.1 billion Senate-passed version.  

The White House has been remarkably dug in on Zika spending, publicly indicating there is no negotiating room on what the president views as an acceptable funding level. So, too, are House Republicans, who passed a $622 million version that offsets the new spending with cuts elsewhere in the budget. The White House opposes offsetting the monies because, typically, emergency spending is not subjected to the often time- consuming partisan bickering that can come with identifying what gets cut.  

[ Obama's Message to Grads a Preview of Final Stump Speech ]  

While it’s not clear just how a House-Senate conference will come up with a palatable compromise, few are expecting the fight to drag on into the fall.  

“Still, I don’t think is going to be a lame duck issue,” Bell said. “The case in New Jersey of the Honduran mother whose baby was born with microcephaly,” which is caused by Zika, “shows without a shadow of a doubt that it does cause what the CDC and world Health Organization say it does.  

“If I were advising a Republican member of the House, I would say either vote ‘yay’ on the conferenced bill, or stand aside and not block it,” Bell added.

Uphill battles

Another matter likely to get attention during the sprint to August is a Senate-passed bill that would allow victims and family members of terrorist attacks on U.S. soil to sue foreign governments believed to be involved. White House aides have sent mixed messages on whether it is destined for a veto.  

Obama aides have said they are open to working with House members toward a compromise to fix parts it believes could put the federal government at risk of similar suits in other countries. But they also have stated their intention to work with House Republicans and Democrats who oppose the Senate bill that in an attempt to sink it.  

The administration remains concerned the measure could put the U.S. federal government at risk of similar suits in other countries. In a statement prepared for Roll Call this week, one White House official signaled little interest in compromise: “We will continue to express our concerns [about unintended consequences], and would welcome opportunities to engage with the Congress on that discussion as the Bill moves to the House.”  

On a criminal justice bill, there have been whispers that something could get done before the Nov. 8 election. But probably not before the August recess or the October-November campaign break.  

[ White House Eager to Rekindle Criminal Justice Effort ]  

After all, Obama is a major advocate , as are senior leaders from both parties in both chambers.  

Sources say talks are ongoing among congressional aides and White House officials, all aiming to lay the foundation for an effort to pass something after the election. But almost no one is ready to declare passage likely this year.  

House Judiciary Chairman Robert W. Goodlatte , R-Va., raised hopes recently by saying he hopes to bring his panel’s criminal justice overhaul bills to the floor “very, very soon.”  

But Goodlatte’s bills would have to be reconciled with whatever the Senate passes, and sources expect important differences. Conference committees often take weeks or more to hammer out a compromise, discouraging hopes for a Rose Garden signing ceremony in the July heat.  

“I think lame duck is a significantly more likely time frame for passage of criminal justice reform than before August,” said Sarah Trumble, an analyst who tracks the issue for the Third Way think tank, which has ties to Democrats and the White House.  

“Republicans are trying desperately to heal — or at least hide — the rift in their party caused by the primary and the rise of Donald Trump , and the last thing they want is a vote that alienates their extremist wing,” Trumble said. “There’s still a good chance criminal justice reform passes in November or December.”  

Contact Bennett at johnbennett@cqrollcall.com. Follow him on Twitter @BennettJohnT. Get breaking news alerts and more from Roll Call on your iPhone or your Android.