Congress Is Back to Work: Everything You Need To Know

PHOTO: Returning from summer recess, Congress is back to work today, September 8, 2015, and rushing headfirst into a series of critical votes. Jon Hicks/Getty Images
Returning from summer recess, Congress is back to work today, September 8, 2015, and rushing headfirst into a series of critical votes.

Congress is back to work today and is rushing headfirst into a series of critical votes and treacherous deadlines, including the Iran agreement, another possible government shutdown and a bill to keep highway projects from stalling.

Here’s a look at what’s ahead:

IRAN DEAL: WILL OBAMA HAVE TO USE HIS VETO?

As we've already reported, the Iran Deal is now officially "unstoppable." But Republicans in Congress still want to weigh-in on the record. The House will vote first on a resolution rejecting the agreement later this week, and is expected to pass the measure. The resolution will fail in the Senate – the only question is, when? On their first day back, Senate Democrats achieved 41 votes for the Iran deal, enough to filibuster the initial vote on the agreement, making sure President Obama does not have to veto the measure of disapproval.

As Congress continues deliberations, several presidential candidates are angling to get their voices heard. On Wednesday, Donald Trump and Sen. Ted Cruz will rally together against the deal outside the Capitol, while Hillary Clinton will speak on the agreement’s merits at a liberal think tank.

COULD THE POPE ROCK THE BOAT?

If Democrats and Republicans can agree anything, it's that Pope Francis’s address to Congress is the hottest ticket in town – and that the pope won't be afraid to get political in his remarks before a September 24th joint session of Congress. Recently, he’s suggested climate change is mostly man-made, urged Catholics to take in Middle Eastern refugees in Europe, criticized trickle-down economics, and praised the Iran deal.

SHUTDOWN AHEAD? GOVERNMENT FUNDING RUNS OUT OCT. 1

Congress is supposed to pass 12 funding bills before Oct. 1 to fund the government in the new fiscal year, but Republican leaders say they expect to pass a short-term measure, called a continuing resolution, to keep the government functioning at last year’s funding levels with sequester caps on defense and domestic spending in place. Previous CR’s have been in place for up to six months. The question is, can Congress pass any long-term spending measures? It’s not going to be easy, as Republicans and Democrats have both threatened holding up bills for various reasons.

Bottom line: Congress has to pass something by the end of the month, or the government shuts down – in order to avoid this, we could keep seeing one short-term spending bill after the other. Additionally, Democrats continue to call for bipartisan budget negotiations to lift the sequester caps on domestic spending, though Republicans have yet to agree to any sit-down, Grand Bargain-style meetings.

PLANNED PARENTHOOD FIGHT BREWING

Keeping the government open for business will likely be made more complicated by some Republicans' calls to defund Planned Parenthood. In the House, 17 GOP members signed a letter promising to oppose any government funding measure that provides funds to Planned Parenthood.

Should their numbers grow, House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, will have a more difficult time sending a funding measure to the Senate, where Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, one of five senators who are also running for president, has threatened to but lacks the support to pass a measure defunding Planned Parenthood. (The House is also expected to vote on a standalone measure to freeze federal funding of Planned Parenthood while congressional committees investigate the organization.)

HILLARY CLINTON TO TESTIFY

Get the popcorn out – Hillary Clinton is going to testify in a public hearing before the House Select Committee on Benghazi on October 22nd. While the committee’s official role is limited to an investigation into the 2012 attack on the American consulate in Libya, they will undoubtedly also discuss her use of a private email server. Clinton has the distinction of holding her hearing in public – her aide Cheryl Mills had requested, and had been denied, an open hearing, and her top foreign policy adviser Jake Sullivan also testified behind closed doors.

Additionally, several Senate committees have opened spin-off probes into Clinton's use of a private email account and server as secretary of state, keeping Clinton and her aides in the spotlight heading into 2016. She’ll likely be pressed on the discovery of classified information in her private emails from her home-brew server.

HIGHWAY BILL: WILL CRITICAL REPAIR PROJECTS STALL WITHOUT FUNDS?

One of those 12 bills that Congress tried and failed to pass before recess was a long-term spending bill for the highway trust fund, which provides federal dollars for transportation projects. Congress managed to patch the fund through Oct. 29th, but the House and Senate couldn’t agree to the terms of a longer bill. House Transportation Committee chairman Bill Shuster has said his committee will start work on a long-term bill that the House could conference with a three-year extension the Senate has already passed. That whole process could easily take beyond the end of October.

DEBT CEILING FIGHT: ARE WE HEADED FOR ANOTHER CREDIT DOWNGRADE, OR DEFAULT?

The debt ceiling – the amount of money the federal government can borrow without defaulting – is currently set at $18.15 trillion, a level that the Treasury Department has warned the U.S. could hit as early as late October if Congress doesn’t act to raise it. If that doesn’t happen, Treasury has to start prioritizing its payments, meaning recipients of some federal benefits might not get paid on time (welfare and food programs, salaries for federal employees, Pell grants) – plus, international markets would take a nosedive.

HOLIDAY CALENDAR MEANS LESS TIME LEGISLATING

Congress really only has 12 legislative days to address the looming September 30th funding crisis. Why such a short time frame? There are always several shortened days at the beginning and end of each week, plus days off for Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, and a day devoted to the Pope’s visit on September 24th.

BOEHNER’S LEADERSHIP TO BE TESTED?

Rep. Mark Meadows, R-North Carolina, has threatened to force a vote on House Speaker John Boehner’s speakership this fall should Boehner frustrate House conservatives in his handling of September’s budget and funding issues. Boehner is unlikely to lose his position atop the House, and called Meadows’s challenge “no big deal” in late July. Still, a vote would be an unwelcome distraction for GOP leaders working through a long to-do list, and the final result could raise new questions about his grip on the Republican conference.

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