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Posted at 06:00 AM ET, 07/30/2012

5 things to watch this week in Congress


The fate of the U.S. Postal Service is among the issues hanging in the balance for Congress before Election Day. (Justin Sullivan - GETTY IMAGES)
There’s one week left before lawmakers flee Washington for a month-long summer recess and a renewed focus on the November elections.

With fewer than 100 days until the general election, after this week the House and Senate will have just 13 legislative days left between Labor Day and Election Day. That leaves little time to resolve pressing issues or begin negotiations on topics that will need to be resolved during the lame-duck session or early next year.

Here’s a preview of the week to come:

1.) House to vote on tax cut proposals: House Republicans plan to cap their summer-long focus on economic issues this week by voting to extend the Bush-era tax cuts to all Americans. After months of votes to repeal the 2010 health-care law and regulations enacted by the Obama administration in the last three years, GOP aides said they wanted to end the summer with a focus on tax cuts in order to carry this week’s momentum on to the campaign trail during the August recess.

The GOP proposal would extend all tax cuts for another year. It differs significantly from a plan passed last week by the Democratic-controlled Senate that extends the cuts only for households and individuals earning $250,000 or less. Despite those differences, House Speaker John A. Boehner (R-Ohio) said he plans to permit a vote on the Democratic plan, which is expected to fail in favor of the GOP bill.

Make no mistake: These votes are designed to score political points ahead of the elections and are only a precursor to more serious conversations about tax reform likely to begin after the elections.

2.) Will the Senate cybersecurity bill pass?: Cybersecurity earns an inordinate amount of attention from lawmakers, but is poorly understood by the general public and rarely explained well by news outlets (But The Washington Post covers thoroughly cybersecurity unlike any other national news outlet.) For years, the White House and congressional leaders have fought over whether to require government and the private sector companies to adopt mandatory security standards to protect computer networks that run the nation’s power, water, banking, transportation and communications.

In an effort to finally pass a bill with bipartisan support, Senate sponsors revised the Cybersecurity Act of 2012 by dropping language that requires compliance and instead makes those standards voluntary. But, as The Post’s Ellen Nakashima has reported, those concessions have only angered opponents and supporters of reforms.

Debate on the bill is expected to continue this week and final passage is possible before the Senate leaves town, aides said.

3.) Can Congress avoid another government shutdown?: This isn’t a must-pass issue this week, but House and Senate leaders are beginning to work on the details of a temporary spending measure to fund government operations for the new fiscal year that begins Oct. 1.

Two big questions to focus on here: How long will the temporary extension last and at what funding level? A three-month extension would require another debate on the issue in December, during an already jampacked lame-duck session, while a six-month extension would push debate into early next year, possibly with a new president.

The question of cost is more critical: Will fiscal conservatives buckle and permit GOP leaders to consent to current spending levels or a $1.047 trillion cap agreed to during last year’s debt limit negotiations? Or will they force Congress to cap appropriations at $1.028 trillion, the sum approved earlier this year by the GOP-controlled House?

This is a trickier issue for Republicans, who may not want to be seen as forcing a partial government shutdown one month before the elections, and negotiations are expected to stretch into September.

4.) Will Congress pass a Farm Bill extension?: With more than 20 states suffering from a record-setting drought and consumers expected to bear the financial brunt in the produce aisle, there’s a growing appetite to pass a one-year extension of the current Farm Bill, which sets agricultural policy and provides federal food stamp assistance to needy families. The Senate passed a Farm Bill last month that cuts $23 billion in federal spending and ends direct subsidies to farmers — but the House has yet to debate a GOP proposal that would make deeper cuts in food aid.

The current farm bill expires Sept. 30, and lawmakers from rural and agriculture-dependent states are likely to come face-to-face with angry voters if Congress doesn’t act before then. So you think they want some kind of resolution? Um, yeah.

5.) And what will Congress do about the U.S. Postal Service? The nation’s mail delivery service is expected to default on a $5.5 billion payment to prefund future retiree health benefits that is due on Wednesday. And next month, USPS is expected to post record-setting losses and default on a similar billions-dollar payment.

The Senate passed a postal reform package in April and a House committee approved a plan last October, but it has languished ever since. House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-Va.) said last week that Republicans have a plan to avoid a Postal Service default, but he — and the GOP lawmakers cosponsoring the plan — have been notably mum on how and when they plan to pass the plan.

Fixing the post office is not an easy issue to tackle in an election year, because service cutbacks are likely to upset some voters. But it’s also the kind of issue that Congress could settle and hold up to voters as an example of bipartisan agreement and progress.

Two honorable mentions:

1.) Can Republicans draw more attention to the sequester? Sens. John McCain (R-Ariz.), Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) and Kelly Ayotte (R-N.H.) plan to visit four swing states this week to highlight their concerns with automatic military spending cuts set to take affect in January — commonly known as “sequestration.”

The trio plans to hold town hall meetings in communities with large military and government contractor populations and they’re set to blame President Obama for agreeing to let the cuts occur, unless policymakers reach a new spending deal. Will the strategy draw anymore attention to the issue? Will it turn concerned voters on Obama? And what will the tour do to help or hurt Ayotte’s growing national profile? The tour begins Monday in Florida and concludes Tuesday in New Hampshire.

2.) The return of gun rights?: A group of Senate Democrats has introduced an amendment to the Senate cybersecurity bill that would reauthorize elements of the assault weapons ban that expired in 2004. The proposal would make it illegal to own large capacity feeding devices, including gun magazines, belts, feed stripes and most drums of more than 10 rounds of ammunition. But in a departure from previous proposals, the new law would only affect sales and transfers that occur after final passage.

In remarks announcing the amendment, Sen. Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) suggested that gun rights advocates and the gun lobby need to compromise in order to reach a new agreement. And he also said that Democrats should clearly state that they do not want to repeal the Second Amendment.

So is this the start of a new gun rights debate? Or just a move by Democrats to curry favor with gun rights activists and urban voters concerned about crime? Stay tuned.

What will you be watching in Congress this week? Share your thoughts in the comments section below.

Follow Ed O’Keefe on Twitter: @edatpost

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By  |  06:00 AM ET, 07/30/2012

 
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