Today marks the 41st day this year that either the House or Senate has been in session. The House plans to vote quickly Friday morning on a spending bill and head home for another weekend. The Senate is already celebrating its long weekend.
By our count, there are only about 75 more days left on the congressional calendar this year. The two chambers will maintain a schedule of working three full days a week for three consecutive weeks before a week-long recess all the way until August, when lawmakers are scheduled to break for the month and return for just a few days in the fall ahead of Election Day.
That's a pretty sparse schedule, but the agenda for both parties is even sparser. In fact, there are only three things left that Congress actually must do this year. By "must," we mean issues with deadlines attached that could cause the federal government's money to run out, or another government shutdown or serious disruption for the insurance industry. (The rest of the time, the focus will be on political "messaging votes," or legislation designed to whip up support among base voters and that has no hope of final passage. Think Obamacare repeal votes and proposals to raise the minimum wage.) Here's the three must-do's:
1. Congress is going to need to do something by the end of the summer to replenish the rapidly dwindling Highway Trust Fund, which gets most of its money from the federal gas tax and provides money for major road construction projects. Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx has warned that the fund could start “bouncing checks” as early as August. Failing to address the issue could jeopardize hundreds of thousands of construction jobs. President Obama and House Speaker John A. Boehner (R-Ohio) would prefer an ambitious multi-year agreement to address the nation's transportation funding. But if recent history is any guide, lawmakers are more likely to approve a smaller, short-term deal. This is, after all, an election year.
2. By the end of September, lawmakers also must pass a new budget for the new fiscal year. House and Senate leaders say they are committed to passing the appropriations bills that outline how the government spends money. That's noble, but if recent history is any guide, lawmakers are more likely to pass a short-term, stop-gap measure to keep the federal government running until after November. This is, after all, an election year.
3. A law that provides federal support for insurance policies to cover large-scale loss due to acts of terrorism expires by the end of the year. Some supporters, including Sen. Mark Kirk (R-Ill.), are pushing for Congress to quickly reauthorize the law in order to provide certainty for the insurance markets. This seems like an easy issue and one with little controversy. But if recent history is any guide, lawmakers are more likely to wait until the lame-duck session to address the issue. This is, after all, an election year.
Bottom line: As if this wasn't already evident to anyone keeping tabs, Democrats running the Senate and Republicans running the House plan to do very little to rock the political boat until Election Day. Very little legislation -- only the things that must-pass -- will find its way to the Oval Office for President Obama's signature. Ambitious, bipartisan legislation will just have to wait until after the elections.