WASHINGTON – After a seven-week recess, Congress returns Tuesday for a few weeks of last-minute governing before racing back home to run for re-election.
Before leaving for summer, the House of Representatives passed just five of the 12 appropriations bills needed to keep parts of the government open past Sept. 30. The Senate passed just three. None has been signed into law.
Hanging in the balance for the taxpayers: a rapidly approaching deadline to avert a shutdown of parts of the government financed by those appropriations, and a $1.1 billion Zika virus prevention bill that’s been held hostage by partisan fighting.
The most likely outcome is a short-term budget continuing resolution to keep government agencies such as the National Park Service open. But before that can happen, watch for partisan fights over guns, Iran and Planned Parenthood to threaten to derail any progress. All those fault lines will be magnified by the fact that all 435 members of the House and a third of the Senate are looking for issues for their re-election campaigns, and racing to get home.
One crucial item on the agenda: Zika. A bitter, partisan, monthslong impasse is holding up federal Zika money as cases of the mosquito-transmitted virus rise in Florida and other states.
Democrats and Republicans are sparring over provisions Republicans added in a House-Senate negotiation. Democrats say they cannot support the bill as long as it contains the “poison pill” provisions, which include cutting funding for Planned Parenthood and lifting a prohibition on flying the Confederate flag at federal cemeteries.
Florida Republican Gov. Rick Scott will travel to Washington on Tuesday to aggressively lobby for a solution. The Senate will try the same day to pry the stalled $1.1 billion Zika prevention measure loose. That vote is likely to fail.
Another flash point: Iran. Republicans are crafting a bill to express displeasure with the Obama administration making a $400 million payment to Iran in January on the day the country freed three American prisoners.
Republicans say it was a ransom deal. Administration officials contend that the sum was instead money owed to the Tehran government that had been delayed in order to “retain maximum leverage” to ensure that the prisoners would be freed that day.
Yet another flash point: guns. House Democrats may continue their efforts to force votes on gun control legislation. While not necessarily a repeat of a sit-in staged earlier this year, they signal they will try something.
Ultimately, insiders expect Congress to again abandon the usual deliberative process of appropriating money and pass a massive, temporary spending plan.
The question is for how long? Many Democrats and Republicans prefer a short-term budget plan that would allow them to come back after the election but before the current Congress ends.