Hill leaders hoping for a quick September session — and no shutdown drama


The U.S. Capitol and the Peace Monument in Washington. (J. Scott Applewhite/AP)

After more than a month at home and away from Washington, focused mostly on electoral politics, Congress reconvenes next week with hopes of averting a government shutdown and quickly reauthorizing a few federal programs before rushing back to the campaign trail.

But two issues beyond lawmakers’ control could complicate those modest hopes. First is the question of President Obama’s executive action plans on immigration. Second is whether he will seek congressional authorization to confront Islamic State, the hard-line groups dominating parts of northern Iraq and Syria. If Congress is forced to seriously debate either issue, it could kill any hope for the drama-free month that House and Senate leaders have been craving.

And there’s been concern that the lack of agreement on virtually anything in recent months might lead to another shutdown — especially with fewer than 15 days of legislative work scheduled this month.

On paper, the September congressional calendar suggests that both chambers want to work quickly on their official duties. House and Senate votes will be held Monday evening, and both chambers plan to meet through the end of the week. The House is scheduled to break on Sept. 19 for a week in observance of Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year, which is Sept. 24. If needed, the House will reconvene on Sept. 29 and leave town for the remainder of the election season on Oct. 2.

In the Senate, Majority Leader Harry M. Reid (D-Nev.) plans to keep colleagues working through Sept. 23, then break for the Jewish holiday and not return until after Election Day.

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“September is going to be brief, but busy,” Speaker John A. Boehner (R-Ohio) warned House Republicans on a conference call Wednesday afternoon, according to an official who listened in on the call. Boehner said the House Republican “closing argument” to voters in the coming weeks would focus on economic issues, including reminders of the dozens of measures passed in the past two years — mostly ignored by the Democratic-controlled Senate — that would help spur job creation.

But Obama is still weighing whether to use executive authority to overhaul his administration’s immigration and deportation policies, possibly by deferring the deportations of millions of illegal immigrants whose children have already been granted temporary status. The White House has signaled in recent days that it might delay any significant policy announcements on immigration until after the elections, in part to avoid upending the chances of several Democratic senators fighting for reelection.

Whether Obama will seek authorization to strike the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria also remains unclear. Members of both parties are calling on the president to quickly escalate military attacks on the group. Obama warned this week that attempts to address the threat from the group could extend into the next year.

Absent any announcement of changes in immigration policy or a sudden request for military authorization, aides to House and Senate leaders said this week that the process of averting another government shutdown should move quickly and easily. Top leaders in both parties are eager to avoid the political drama and fallout from last year’s shutdown — especially just a few weeks before Election Day.

House Republicans are expected to unveil a short-term spending plan next week that would continue current spending levels through at least early December, according to top aides. It’s still unclear whether Boehner and his leadership team will add other items to the measure, including reauthorization of the Export-Import Bank, the federal entity that provides loan guarantees to foreign purchasers of American goods, including airplanes. Reauthorizing the bank has emerged as a cause célèbre for conservative Republicans who believe the bank is an example of “crony capitalism,” or Washington’s practice of putting corporate interests over ordinary people.

In order to reauthorize the bank, Boehner will need to strike an agreement with Rep. Jeb Hensarling (R-Tex.), who chairs the House Financial Services Committee that oversees the bank and who has emerged as one of its fiercest critics.

Aides to Boehner and Hensarling said this week that no deal has been reached but that an agreement to authorize a short-term extension is in the works.

The Senate is poised to begin September holding votes on measures designed to shore up support among minorities, women and working-class voters — key Democratic-leaning constituencies in several close races.

Democrats are expected to hold a vote next week on a measure that would give Congress the power to overturn controversial Supreme Court campaign finance decisions. The measure is ultimately expected to fail because of a lack of Republican support but is viewed as a political gesture to appease liberals who have bemoaned the flood of unregulated money into campaigns since the Supreme Court’s 2010 Citizens United decision.

The issue of unlimited campaign donations is a special concern of Reid, who has spent much of the past year blasting the wealthy industrialist brothers Charles and David Koch for financing outside political groups pouring millions of dollars into several states in hopes of unseating Democratic senators.

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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