Congress left town in a hurry late last month after Republicans – in a rare display of unity with President Obama – pushed through controversial “fast-track” legislation that allows the president to negotiate a major trade pact with Pacific Rim countries.
But when lawmakers return to work this week, the president and Congress must face up to some of the most consequential issues they are likely to see throughout the 2016 presidential campaign. One of the most important will be the congressional response to an emerging U.S. –Iranian deal to restrain Tehran’s development of a nuclear weapon and lift economic sanctions against Iran.
There are also sharp differences between the administration and Republicans over the size of the fiscal 2016 defense budget and whether Obama’s efforts to combat ISIS need to be bolstered with an infusion of U.S. ground troops.
On the domestic front, the future of the nation’s crumbling highway program is uncertain with continued uncertainty over long-term funding threatening tens of thousands of job-generating infrastructure projects throughout the country.
Meanwhile, an unfolding bankruptcy crisis in Puerto Rico – coinciding with Greece’s debt default from the International Monetary Fund – may force Congress to consider ways to avert a financial calamity on the U.S. island territory. There is also important unfinished business regarding the ultimate fate of a U.S. banking institution that provides overseas credit to encourage exports by American companies.
Regardless of what the issue is, 2016 presidential politics are sure to intrude. Republican senators Ted Cruz of Texas, Marco Rubio of Florida, Rand Paul of Florida and Lindsey Graham of South Carolina and Sen. Bernie Sanders, a self-styled Democratic socialist from Vermont, are all running for president and are certain to use the Senate floor as their bully pulpit.
In short, the coming months will pose huge political and legislative challenges for Obama, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) and House Speaker John Boehner (R-OH).
Here is a summary of some of upcoming main events:
- Just before the July 4th break, Senate Republican and Democratic transportation leaders unveiled a new six-year, $350 billion spending plan to boost overall highway, bridge and other infrastructure projects by about 13 percent over current levels. But never underestimate Congress’s ability to bollix things up at the last minute.
While lawmakers can agree on how much is needed to prop up the near bankrupt federal Highway Trust Fund, the major sticking point remains how to pay for it – either by raising the gas tax or major tax reform.
- Congress allowed the federal Export-Import Bank’s charter to expire last week -- much to the delight of conservative Republicans who insist it mostly helps larger corporations like Boeing while putting taxpayers at risk.
Supporters warned of serious economic harm if Congress doesn’t act quickly to reauthorize the agency. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) said that bank reauthorization might be considered as part of a new highway bill. Good luck with that.
- Congress and the Obama administration are nowhere with regard to new defense and domestic spending legislation for the coming fiscal year. Without an agreement on the dozen annual appropriations bills required to be adopted by Sept. 30, Congress could face another partial government shutdown this fall – just when it will also be debating a boost in the debt ceiling.
At the heart of the controversy are sharp differences between Democrats and Republicans over tight spending caps that were mandated by the 2011 Budget Control Act. The Republicans want to circumvent the defense cap but leave one on domestic programs favored by Obama and the Democrats.
However, Obama has vowed to veto any spending bill that reaches his desk unless the Republicans agree to a compromise to lift the caps on domestic programs as well as defense spending.
- Many Republicans and some Democrats are anxiously monitoring U.S. negotiations with Iran in Vienna over a deal that would limit Tehran’s nuclear program for the coming decade in return for a lifting of onerous economic sanctions against Iran.
News reports suggest that a final agreement could be struck as early as Tuesday. Many lawmakers think Obama is giving away the store may try to block it once the final deal is submitted to Congress for a 30 to 60 day review. Obama has argued that without a nuclear non-proliferation agreement with Iran, prospects for war with Iran will be heightened.
- Amid growing concern about Puerto Rico’s debt crisis, some Democratic lawmakers are pushing for action to extend Chapter 9 federal bankruptcy law protections to the beleaguered commonwealth island.
Unlike Detroit and scores of other municipalities and U.S. state-affiliated authorities that got into deep fiscal trouble, Puerto Rico can’t avail itself of federal bankruptcy protection to expedite a wholesale restructuring of its debt and simultaneously deal with creditors.
Democratic Sens. Chuck Schumer of New York and Richard Blumenthal of Connecticut announced they would introduce legislation to correct that problem. But many Republicans are opposed to any sort of bailout for Puerto Rico.
- The nation was stunned by the killing of nine African Americans in Charleston, S.C., by a young white supremacist who used a .45 caliber gun.
It was a horrifying event that touched off a national discussion about racism, the symbolism of the Confederate battle flag and – of course – gun violence. But talk about reopening a debate on Capitol Hill on the need for tighter gun control measures and more pervasive background checks was met with mostly a deafening silence.
However, the Republican and Democratic co-sponsors of modest gun reforms that went down to defeat two years ago after the massacre of 20 Sandy Hook Elementary School students and six adults in Connecticut said recently they might try again this year.
With the powerful National Rifle Association and other gun rights groups poised to come down hard on any renewed effort to contain or better regulate the sale of semi-automatic guns and large bullet clips, few lawmakers would take the chance of siding with Sens. Pat Toomey (R-PA) and Joe Manchin (D-WV).
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