WASHINGTON – Congress has a lot to do and very little time to do it.
By the end of September, federal lawmakers are supposed to fund the government and fend off a shutdown, raise the limit on how much debt the federal government can incur, reauthorize the Federal Aviation Administration, save a program that provides health insurance to millions of children, prevent the National Flood Insurance Program from lapsing while vast stretches of Texas are still under water and steer billions in federal aid to victims of that catastrophe.
All this comes amid President Trump's feuds with fellow Republicans who control Congress, his push for a Mexican border wall and attempts to build momentum for a tax-cut package.
"This is a landmark month," Sen. Amy Klobuchar said in an interview. "We really have to show our stuff — that people can work across the aisle and do what's best for America."
Specifically, Klobuchar said, lawmakers must show they can do more than "just oppose everything." To get past the dysfunction that has increasingly characterized Congress in recent years, she said, will require Republicans and Democrats "to go out of their comfort zone."
Congress returns this week from a monthlong recess to a legislative calendar counting down to Sept. 30, the deadline to fund the government or at least pass a stopgap to keep it running a few months longer.
"I just hope we can get all these things done. We really sort of have to get all these things done," said Sen. Al Franken, who like Klobuchar, is a DFLer.
Getting it done
"It's going to be a mad sprint," said Republican Rep. Tom Emmer, who holds out some hope that the GOP-led Congress will get the 2018 spending bills to the Republican president's desk ahead of deadline for the first time in decades.
Most years, Congress buys itself breathing room on the budget by passing continuing resolutions that allow the government to pay its bills while lawmakers hammer out the dozen spending bills that fund specific programs, pay federal workers and keep the national parks open. So far, the House has finished work on four of the 12 appropriations bills.
"[Congress] gets an incomplete for not getting their homework done before we went on recess," said Rep. Betty McCollum, who returned to work before Labor Day, along with other members of the House Appropriations Committee. The interior subcommittee, where McCollum serves as the ranking Democrat, not only has to fund the Interior Department and Environmental Protection Agency, but sift through more than 100 amendments members hope to tack onto the bill.
GOP Rep. Jason Lewis isn't worried about the House getting its work done. The chamber has sent some 270 bills to the Senate since January, he said, where most of them still sit.
"I'll give you my House defense pitch: We've actually been pretty [effective] on the House side. We have passed more legislation out of that chamber than any time since [President George] H.W. Bush," Lewis said. "It'll be very, very difficult" for Congress to wrap up its work by September 30 without a continuing resolution. "But out of a setback sometimes comes a new commitment. I do think that there's a realization that we just can't go down the road on some of the major stuff and not get it done."
While Congress works, Klobuchar said, "the White House needs to reduce the drama and allow people to do their jobs. That means not going after everyone — including their own party."
In an angry August tweet, Trump accused congressional Republicans of creating "a mess" by leaving for their August recess without solving the debt ceiling problem — the $19.9 trillion borrowing limit that the government will hit Sept. 29. Trump has also flirted with supporting a government shutdown unless Congress agrees to wall off the 2,000-mile Mexican border, although the White House has backed away from that talk in the aftermath of Harvey's destruction.
Minnesota Republicans are eager to pivot to tax policy. Emmer spent his August reeling off a daily list of "31 Reasons For Tax Reform."
"Hopefully we'll have a blueprint for that when we get back," Emmer said. "With the idea that we could be done by the end of the year. I think it needs to be done."
Looming over the congressional debate regarding Hurricane Harvey are memories of superstorm Sandy in 2012, when hard-line budget hawks delayed an aid package for New York and New Jersey for weeks. Twenty of those "no" votes were Texas Republicans who are now facing a disaster of their own.
Harvey's devastation could snap Congress out of its budget brinkmanship, said Rep. Tim Walz, and make it easier to raise the debt ceiling, pass a continuing resolution and secure the first installment of a disaster relief package.
"I think the calculus changed a little bit with the tragedy in Texas," said Walz, a DFLer. "Those itching for a shutdown fight, I think probably left that behind."
Another DFLer, Rep. Keith Ellison, was more skeptical.
"There are thousands of people in Texas and Louisiana who need our help, and millions and millions more who would be affected by a government shutdown," Ellison said in a statement. "But this Republican-led House has made it pretty clear they aren't interested in helping the folks who need it most. Republicans in the House Financial Services Committee are still vocally committed to gutting flood insurance in the wake of Hurricane Harvey. We'll see."
On top of disaster aid, budget bills and to-do items like reauthorizing the Children's Health Insurance Program, the Minnesota delegation will be plowing through piles of committee work.
If there is federal shutdown, DFL Rep. Rick Nolan wants to make sure it hits members of Congress in the wallet. He's trying to build support for legislation he calls "No Government-No Pay" that would ensure members of future Congresses would not be paid — ever — for the days the government is shut down on their watch.
The 2013 shutdown "debacle," Nolan wrote in The Hill earlier this year, "put the American people through a 16-day shutdown that took $24 billion out of our economy, cost 120,000 good-paying jobs and furloughed more than 800,000 federal employees … Government by crisis management is no way to run a country."
Franken said his priority will be solving skyrocketing premiums and shrinking markets under the Affordable Care Act.
"This is something we have to do pretty fast and we have to do in a bipartisan way," Franken said. The Senate health committee has lined up a raft of governors, insurance executives and others to talk about "what we can do to get a handle on these costs."
Rep. Collin Peterson, the ranking Democrat on the House Agriculture Committee, flew his small plane to Illinois last week to attend a final listening session on the 2018 Farm Bill. The committee is on track to wrap up work ahead of schedule on the multibillion-dollar legislation, which sets out six years' worth of federal agricultural policies, programs and subsidies.
"My main focus is to keep focused on what I can actually have an impact on, and maybe control, and that's the Farm Bill," said Peterson, whose party won't be the one setting the House's agenda this fall.
As for the rest of September: "I hope we can work through all of this stuff. I think it's going to be problematic," he said. "My attitude is, I want to be helpful."
The Associated Press contributed to this report.