6 things Congress needs to do in July

If Congress plans to achieve anything significant this year, July will be a good test of whether that can happen.

Significant debates await the House and Senate in the coming weeks over a new budget, a new farm bill, federally-subsidized student loans, several key Obama administration nominees and an overhaul of the nation's immigration laws, which remains the year's biggest political fight.

Here's a quick review of what to expect in July, before lawmakers leave town for a month of town hall meetings, district office hours, official overseas trips and time off with family and friends:

(By Jahi Chikwendiu/Post)

1. Immigration: The longer immigration wallows in the halls of Congress, the less likely that lawmakers will settle the issue. In the coming weeks, keep an eye  on what the White House, congressional Democrats and a network of supporters -- religious, corporate, union and nonprofit groups -- do to keep pressure on the House.

House committees already have approved four immigration-related bills: a border security plan, which the House Homeland Security Committee passed unanimously, and three measures passed by the House Judiciary Committee -- a bill that would make it a federal crime to be in the U.S. illegally and provide local law enforcement agencies federal funding to enforce immigration laws; an agricultural guest worker program; and a plan regarding high-skilled worker visas.

Rep. Michael McCaul (R-Tex.), who chairs the homeland security panel, didn't seem concerned about speed Sunday, telling CBS's "Face the Nation" that his border security bill "could be on the floor by July. If not, I think September." McCaul also suggested that the House could have all of its immigration legislation completed "by the September time frame."

(AP)

2. Settle the student loans issue: The interest rate charged on federally-subsidized student loans doubled from 3.4 percent to 6.8 percent on July 1.

With 7 million students projected to take out subsidized loans when the new school year begins this fall, this is arguably the most real-world issue that must be addressed as soon as possible. If Congress adjourns for its August recess without passing a bill, the effect on students -- and their pocketbooks -- will be significant.

The House approved a GOP proposal in late May that would allow interest rates on federal student loans to rise or fall from year to year with the government’s cost of borrowing, ending a system in which rates are fixed by law. A bipartisan group of senators introduced a similar plan in June, but Senate Democrats are expected to hold a vote this week on a plan to extend the fixed 3.4 percent rate for another year, a plan that Republicans vow to filibuster.

A combine harvests winter wheat on a farm near Roggen, Colo. (AP)

3. Pass a farm bill (or at least get the House to pass a version): This remains a big piece of unfinished business with the expiration of current federal farm and food aid policy on Sept. 30 -- and it's still on the list thanks to the surprise defeat last month of a new five-year farm bill in the House.

House Majority Leader Eric I. Cantor (R-Va.) sent a memo to fellow Republicans last week outlining what they'll be voting on in July. He mentioned several proposals to create jobs and plans to continue holding hearings on how the Obama administration is implementing the 2010 health-care reform law and dealing with problems at the Internal Revenue Service.

And the farm bill? All Cantor would say is that "Members should be prepared to act on a revised farm bill."

Big disagreements remain between the two parties and two chambers over federal food aid, which accounts for almost 80 percent of the cost of the legislation. The House bill defeated last month would slash about $20 billion in food aid, while the Senate bill approved last month would cut about $4 billion. Those differences are set to dominate negotiations in the coming weeks.

House Appropriations Committee Chairman Hal Rogers (R-Ky.). (AP)

4. Appropriations and preparing to pass a short-term budget plan: The goal this month will be to see how many appropriations bills each of the chambers can approve ahead of the end of the fiscal year on Sept. 30.

Cantor said in his memo that the House may vote this month on five spending plans, for energy and water; the Defense Department; financial services; the departments of Transportation and Housing and Urban Development; and the Agriculture Department.

Much of the work on drafting a short-term spending plan is expected to happen in September and Republicans are pining for a fight with the White House over deeper spending cuts that President Obama has vowed to oppose, meaning Washington could be headed for another threatened government shutdown beginning Oct. 1.

Sen. Max Baucus (D-Mont.). (Haraz N. Ghanbari/AP)

5. Tax reform and fiscal issues: The goal of completely revamping the U.S. tax code remains the dream of many on Capitol Hill, but neither Obama nor congressional leaders are showing much enthusiasm.

That isn't stopping top congressional tax writers from trying. Senate Finance Committee Chairman Max Baucus (D-Mont.) and House Ways and Means Committee Chairman Dave Camp (R-Mich.) are taking a “blank slate” approach and asking colleagues to provide justifications for hundreds of perks that ordinary taxpayers claim, including the child credit and the deduction for mortgage interest, or they will be eliminated.

Baucus and Camp plan to retire from Congress in early 2015, giving them about a year and a half to stop dreaming and start doing.

Gina McCarthy, Obama's pick to lead the EPA. (AP)

6. Senate confirmation battles: Now that the immigration issue is settled in the Senate, Democrats plan to use the pending confirmations of three Obama administration officials as proxies in a new fight over Senate rules.

Reid plans to hold up-or-down votes this month on the nominations of Thomas Perez, to lead the Labor Department, Gina McCarthy to lead the Environmental Protection Agency, and Richard Cordray to lead the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, according to aides.

If Republicans block votes on the nominees, Reid is threatening to change Senate rules by eliminating the 60-vote threshold required to approve judicial and executive branch nominations. The idea remains popular with junior, more liberal senators, but is strongly opposed by senior senators of both parties, many of whom know the perils of serving in the minority.

Also, keep an eye on three nominees to fill key national security positions.

The Senate Armed Services Committee will hold a hearing July 18 on the re-nomination of Gen. Martin Dempsey for chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, while the Senate Foreign Relations Committee plans to hold hearings on Samantha Power, Obama's choice for U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, and Victoria Nuland for assistant secretary of state for European and Eurasian Affairs.

All three are likely to face questions about Syria, Egypt and the continuing fallout from the Sept. 11, 2012, terrorist attack at the U.S. diplomatic outpost in Benghazi, Libya.

Ed O’Keefe is covering the 2016 presidential campaign, with a focus on Jeb Bush and other Republican candidates. He's covered presidential and congressional politics since 2008. Off the trail, he's covered Capitol Hill, federal agencies and the federal workforce, and spent a brief time covering the war in Iraq.

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