The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Congress is (finally) back. First thing on its to-do list: Get reelected.

Let the games begin. (Bill O'Leary/The Washington Post)
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After seven weeks off, Congress is back to work. Kind of.

Its top priority over the next three or four weeks is to get reelected. Which means if you thought Congress was gridlocked before, you ain't seen nothing yet.

Just about everything lawmakers do will be shadowed by a cloud of uncertainty, especially for Republicans: Will they have control of the Senate when the next Congress starts in January? How big will their majority in the House of Representatives be? Will they even have control of the House?

But there are also some things Congress has to deal with, like funding the government and figuring out a way to approve money to fight the growing Zika threat.

Here's a rundown of what's on Congress's to-do list over the next 17 legislative days, in order of likelihood, along with some of the sticking points that could hold it up.

1) Get reelected

Everyone's in survival mode. Republicans have to watch their backs to make sure they don't give any extra ammunition to Democrats, who feel pretty good about their chances to take back control of the Senate and are bullish about their chances to put a dent in Republicans' historic majority in the House. Democrats, meanwhile, have absolutely every incentive to make House Speaker Paul Ryan's (R-Wis.) and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell's (R-Ky.) lives miserable these next few weeks. That could manifest itself in any number of ways, some of which we'll get to.

The sticking point: As Brookings Institution nonpartisan congressional analyst Molly Reynolds pointed out to The Fix, Ryan actually has a little bit of leeway here: His most vulnerable Republicans are in more moderate districts, meaning he might be able to cut some deals with Democrats and get away with it.

2) Fund the government

Yup, we're back on shutdown watch again. Or at least, spending-bill-drama watch. Congress has until Sept. 30 to essentially renew a deal that former House speaker John Boehner negotiated on his way out the door last fall.

The sticking point: How long this spending deal should last. Broadly speaking, mainstream Republicans and Democrats want to pass a very short bill that lasts until just after the election so they can hammer out a more serious spending bill when they know the state of play afterward. But conservatives want to lock in lower spending levels for the next six months to avoid what they perceive as a potential goodie-free-for-all in the lame-duck session.

This will be conservatives' first big test of power after the primaries, since one of their own [Rep. Tim Huelskamp (R-Kan.), a Freedom Caucus leader] lost to an establishment-backed candidate.

3) Fund Zika help

Federal health officials are warning pregnant women not to travel to Miami Beach after Florida confirms the Zika virus is active there. (Video: Reuters)

Congress went home right smack in the middle of a bitter battle about how to fund help for the impact of the Zika virus. The public didn't seem to care too much at that point — but since then, the Zika threat has ramped up.

Congress doesn't usually tackle drama willingly, but dealing with the Zika threat is No. 2 on its to-do list because ground zero for Zika in the continental United States is Florida — a state that has a competitive Senate race and at least four competitive House races. It'll be one of the first votes the Senate takes when they gavel in Tuesday evening.

The sticking point: Congress agreed on a $1 billion spending level (President Obama and his disease prevention team asked for $2 billion), but they couldn't agree on all the other, somewhat unrelated add-ons in the bill. So Senate Democrats voted against it and accused Republicans of playing politics by throwing in a bunch of random stuff. Senate Republicans accused Democrats of playing politics, and that's where we ended it.

4) Give Olympians tax breaks, talk about Iran

After figuring out how to fund the government, Congress is going to settle into messaging votes aimed directly at the base, with varying odds of success. (Some are just for show. Others sometimes have a shot.) Since Republicans are in control, that means there will be a string of votes popular with the Republican base.

Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) will introduce a bill to try to get back the $400 million the American government sent to Iran on the same day Iran released five American prisoners. It probably goes without saying, but that proposal is unlikely to become a reality.

And for reasons I explained here, Republicans are keen on the idea of giving a tax break to Olympians' prize money for winning medals. There's been some bipartisan sign-on for the idea, so that may actually have a shot.

The wild card: Impeaching the head of the IRS

Before they left in the summer, a high-profile, highly political committee led by House Republicans voted to censure IRS Commissioner John Koskinen. It was the climax (so far) of an epic he-said, she-said battle over the 2013 IRS scandal involving scrutiny of conservative groups applying for tax-exempt status.

Some conservatives want the full House to go a step further and impeach Koskinen — something that hasn't been done to a Cabinet-level member since 1876. Ryan doesn't seem keen on the idea, but conservatives might seize this debate to flex their muscle. They're antsy after Huelskamp's primary loss — for which some conservatives blame Ryan.

Things Congress probably won't get to

Pretty much everything else, especially the controversial stuff.

It's not coincidence that in this chart by GOP operative Bruce Mehlman, the most controversial issues hit after the election.

For example, it's an open question whether Obama's 12-nation Pacific-rim trade deal will get approved. Generally speaking, congressional Republicans support it while Democrats are wary of it. But we've seen several vulnerable Senate Republicans abandon their support for the Trans-Pacific Partnership as a result of Trump's anti-trade appeal.

And we haven't even mentioned arguably the biggest job before the Senate: whether to confirm Obama's choice for the Supreme Court. After Justice Antonin Scalia died in February, I wrote that it's possible Senate Republicans could confirm Judge Merrick Garland after the election, if they know Clinton is our next president — and worry she could nominate a much more liberal justice.

But that's a fight for another time. For now, Congress is going to spend the next few weeks just trying to fund the government and get reelected.

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