Congress returns with one goal: Do no (political) harm

April 28, 2014

Lawmakers returned to Washington on Monday after a two-week Easter recess, and the goal of Republicans and Democrats controlling the House and the Senate remains the same: Do no political harm, or at least do nothing to cause serious shifts in the political winds that could upset the status quo before Election Day.

It’s less than 200 days until Nov. 4, when Republicans are expected to expand their majority in the House. Democrats are fighting to maintain their narrow majority in the Senate. Congress will convene for about 60 days in the next six months as all members of the House and 36 senators continue campaigning. In the next five weeks, the House will meet for just 15 days with a weeklong Mother’s Day break in between. The Senate plans to work four consecutive weeks before spending a week at home for Memorial Day.

During that time, talks will continue on raising the minimum wage, repealing or changing the Affordable Care Act, overhauling the nation’s tax code, and writing dozens of spending bills to fund the government in the next fiscal year. Lawmakers in both parties want to enact tougher sanctions against Russia, which continues to destabilize eastern Ukraine.

Then there’s immigration reform. It isn’t expected to be a topic of debate in the House in the next few weeks despite widespread public support and some recent favorable comments by GOP leaders.

Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers (Wash.), the fourth-ranking House Republican as leader of the GOP messaging operation, said in an interview over the weekend that she believes a deal on immigration could be struck before the election. “I believe there is a path that we get a bill on the floor by August,” she told the Spokane Spokesman-Review.

Her comments came just days after House Speaker John A. Boehner (R-Ohio) openly mocked his Republican colleagues for their unwillingness to tackle immigration reform this year.

But Boehner aides dismissed his comments as lighthearted teasing, and when the speaker delivered the Republican radio address Saturday, he touted House-passed jobs bills and made no mention of immigration.

The House instead this week will take up a series of measures designed to curb human trafficking — a pet concern of conservative lawmakers and their supporters. Then the House will begin passing the spending bills needed to fund the federal government during fiscal 2015. This is the earliest start of the annual appropriations process in the House since 1974, according to the office of Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-Va.).

The appropriations bills remain a productive and potentially successful endeavor for Congress after it approved a two-year spending agreement in January. With budget figures set through the end of fiscal 2015, the heads of the House and Senate appropriations committees remain committed to passing their spending bills under “regular order” for the first time in several years. The process isn’t expected to be over before October, when the new fiscal year begins, but the House and Senate are expected to reach agreement on a short-term spending plan by September and resume the appropriations process after the elections.

Meanwhile in the Senate, Democrats this week plan to try advancing a proposal to raise the federal minimum wage to $10.10 per hour. Majority Leader Harry M. Reid (D-Nev.) set up the proposal Monday afternoon for a procedural vote on Wednesday, but it is expected to fall short of the 60 votes needed to advance to formal debate and final passage, senior Senate aides said.

A majority of Americans support raising the minimum wage, but Republican senators and at least one Democratic senator facing a difficult reelection are expected to vote against the plan.

Sen. Mark Pryor (D-Ark.) has called raising the federal wage to at least $10.10 “too much, too fast,” but he supports a proposal in his state to raise the minimum wage there to $8.50 per hour by 2017. With Pryor planning to vote no, other vulnerable Democratic incumbents, including Sens. Mark Begich (Alaska), Mary Landrieu (La.) and Mark R. Warner (Va.), might join him. They have said they are willing to raise the minimum wage but would prefer to work with Republicans on a proposal with a better chance of passing.

Even if the minimum-wage measure fails, Democrats remain committed to voting on a series of proposals designed to give “a fair shot” to lower-income and middle-class Americans. The strategy is aimed at generating support and turnout among reliable Democratic voters, including minorities, younger people and unmarried women.

As the week began, Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.), who is not facing reelection, mentioned the minimum-wage debate in a campaign solicitation to supporters. She labeled her e-mail message “Critical” and reminded supporters that Landrieu and other female Democratic senators, including Sens. Kay Hagan (N.C.) and Jeanne Shaheen (N.H.), remain locked in competitive races.

“Holding on to these seats means more than keeping our Senate majority this November,” Gillibrand wrote, adding later that “my friends Kay, Jeanne and Mary are critical allies on paycheck fairness, increasing the minimum wage and advocating for women and families.”

Ed O’Keefe is a congressional reporter with The Washington Post and covered the 2008 and 2012 presidential and congressional elections.
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