As Congress returns today from a lengthy summer recess, it will be facing a raft of unfinished business and a much different political landscape than the one it left behind in late July.
In the lawmakers’ absence, multi-billionaire Donald Trump has emerged as the undisputed Republican presidential frontrunner with an anti- illegal immigrant, anti-Establishment, pro-war and pro-tax increase agenda that will both energize and further polarize the political debate on Capitol Hill.
Democratic presidential frontrunner Hillary Rodham Clinton meanwhile is now trailing Sen. Bernie Sanders in New Hampshire. With a sizable majority of voters doubting her honesty, a House special committee hearing next month into the former secretary of state’s handling of the Benghazi controversy and her use of a personal email server for official business will take on added political significance as she tries to regain some momentum.
More on the follow-up list:
- ISIS forces have grown stronger and more menacing in Syria and Iraq.
- A humanitarian crisis of epic proportions is playing out in Europe as more than 800,000 immigrants are fleeing Syria and other war-torn areas of the Middle East.
- The stock market has been rattled by growing concerns about China’s struggling economy.
- President Obama has assembled enough Democratic support in the Senate to ensure his Iran deal and sustain a veto in the event the Republican-controlled Congress approves a motion of disapproval.
This fast-changing landscape is likely to jolt Congress out of its late-summer torpor and force Senate and House GOP leaders to alter their already formidable fall legislative game plan to adjust to the new political realities.
One continuing reality from the old punch list is the possibility of a shutdown if Congress doesn’t pass a stop gap spending bill or “continuing resolution” to keep the government operating beyond the start of the new fiscal year, which begins October 1. And new debt ceiling legislation to avert a first-ever default on U.S. borrowing. Other important pending issues include new long-term spending authorization for highways, bridges and other infrastructure and the possible reauthorization of the U.S. Export-Import Bank
“It looks like a traffic jam on the runway,” said Ron Bonjean, a political analyst and former congressional Republican communications director. “There are a lot of legislative planes waiting to take off and get past, but it looks like it could get stalled over a number of issues – everything from Planned Parenthood to the highway bill to issues over the budget.”
Previously unforeseen events could force Congress to reshape its fleeting legislative calendar.
Immigration is a good case in point: Until now, the focus has been on illegal immigration from Mexico and Central America and Trump’s call for building a 2,000-mile wall along the U.S.-Mexico border and deporting many of the 11 million illegal immigrants in this country.
As Europe’s migrant crisis unfolds with tragic images of drowning children and tens of thousands of bedraggled families attempting to flee war-torn Syria and Iraq and reach Germany and the few other welcoming countries, humanitarian aid workers and some lawmakers are beginning to ask why the United States isn’t doing far more to help.
David Miliband, president and CEO of the International Rescue Committee, said over the weekend that Congress and the White House must step up to the plate and improve on its tepid response to the Syrian civil war crisis that has spawned much of the mass migration.
Estimates vary, but the U.S. has accepted between 700 and 1,500 refugees from the Syrian civil war since it began four years ago, in part because of a requirement for strict background and security checks of immigrants before they are allowed in this country. The United Nations Commissioner for Refugees and others have called on the United States to resettle at least 65,000 Syrian refugees by the end of 2016 – a goal supported by at least 14 senators led by Senate Minority Whip Richard Durbin (D-IL).
“The U.S. has always been a leader in refugee resettlement,” Miliband said on ABC News’ This Week with George Stephanopoulos. “But 1,500 people over four years is such a miniscule contribution to tackling the human side to the problem.”
The growing threat of ISIS is another factor that could force Congress’s hand. More than a year after President Obama announced his strategy for fighting ISIS primarily with air strikes and the support of friendly rebel group in Iraq and Syria, the U.S. has little to show for it.
Republican and Democratic leaders alike have been content to allow the administration to conduct the war without new war powers authorization from Congress. But if the U.S. strategy continues to show few positive results, pressure may build within Congress to intervene to step up both air strikes and ground action by U.S. forces.