Congress returns: Could do, probably won't do

Outside of emergency action, expectations for significant legislation after August are low during this midterms year.

Story highlights

  • Congressional agenda frozen in election-year politics
  • Expectations of significant action after August are low due to campaign schedule
  • Handful of bills must be dealt with,

Nearly May, yet lawmakers returning to Congress this week still must wear jackets to fend off chilly mornings. And they still have to brace themselves for a long to-do list that remains frozen in election-year politics.

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Think of the rest of 2014 as the "could do" but probably "won't do" Congress.

The Calendar

Most American look at the calendar and see eight months left in the year.

Members of Congress see the three months left until August, when they leave on a month-long recess and most transition to full-time campaigning.

Leaders could plan significant votes in September and will likely hold a "lame-duck" session after the election, but outside of emergency action, expectations for significant legislation after August are low.

Must Pass

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A handful of lonely bills wear the "must pass" label, legislation that nearly everyone agrees lawmakers must and will pass.

First up: replenishing the multibillion-dollar Highway Trust Fund, which is within months of running out of money and then causing work stoppages on federal road projects.

"That's something that has to happen," said Joel Friedman, vice president of the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities.

The D.C. think tank leans left, but shares the view of most on the highway fund: at the least Congress must pass temporary spending to keep transportation projects alive until a longer-term deal.

"It could be one of those things that they just punt, just do something to get us into the next year and leave it to the next Congress."

Also must pass: keeping government running. Yes, again. The current federal spending bill runs out at the end of September.

But there is no appetite for another shutdown. And October is prime-time campaign season. As a result, many expect some kind of temporary funding bill, or continuing resolution, which could be passed as soon as the end of July.

Need to Do, Likely to Do

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A full platoon of tax credits, more than 50 of them, is in limbo and needs to be resolved by the end of the year. Some of these are critical to business decisions, including the research and experimentation credit.

As long as Congress delays action on the so-called "tax extenders," millions of businesses have no guidance on whether certain spending will be deductible or not.

"How can a small company that needs (the tax credit) and wants it, how can they make plans when they don't when or whether it's going to be (put into law)?" asked the Bipartisan Policy Center's Steve Bell.

The Republican worked for more than two decades in the Senate, including years as the staff director for the Senate Budget Committee.

Others in the need-to-pass and possibly-could-pass category: the annual defense authorization bill and renewing the Terrorism Risk Insurance Act, which backs up the insurance market for terrorism-related losses.

Do Be Do Be Not Done

Otherwise, a universe of major issues will go unresolved this year. A sort of doo-wap chorus of problems put on political repeat in recent years.

Immigration. Mental health. Major jobs legislation. Long-term unemployment. Medicare insolvency. Future, exploding debt.

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"It's not unsurprising that nothing major is happening in an election year," said Friedman. "That said, obviously with the split houses," he laughed, "there hasn't been a huge success rate coming up to ths point."

May do: smaller things

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The big, tough issues seem out of play, despite leaders of both parties often publicly recognizing the problems.

But some smaller things could happen.

Senate Democratic leaders are considering bringing a few bipartisan bills to the floor in coming weeks. One tackles energy efficiency. Another manufacturing.

Both of those sync up with general efforts also underway by the House.

Otherwise, expect Congress to fill its days with votes that are mostly statements, likely to pass one chamber and then be killed by the opposing party in the other.

Examples? Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, a Democrat of Nevada, has set a Wednesday vote on raising the minimum wage.

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In the next two weeks, House Majority Leader Eric Cantor, a Republican of Virginia, has told his members that they will vote on charter school reform.

And House Republicans continue to swing punches at Obamacare, vowing to propose their own health reform proposal later this year.

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It is still chilly in Washington. But the weather, it seems, is likely to change more quickly than the politics.

"We're waiting for the Congress to get to work," said the Bipartisan Policy Center's Steve Bell. "But if they don't, I'll just plant my tomatoes and watch them grow."

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Special Coverage: The 2014 midterms