Congress returns from a five-week vacation Monday with an extraordinary array of problems to address, among them the Middle East crisis and the growing menace of the murderous Islamic State. With President Obama returning from a NATO summit in Wales with ideas for expanded military action against ISIS in Iraq and possibly Syria, lawmakers will be asked to signal how much military authority they’re prepared to grant the president.
On Friday Obama said the administration had formed a coalition of countries to oppose Sunni militants with the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria. Secretary of State John F. Kerry said the multinational alliance possesses ``the ability to destroy’’ the militants, employing tactics beyond military attacks such as attempting to disrupt its recruiting and financial networks, according to The Washington Post.
Returning lawmakers will be greeted with a raft of other important unfinished business, including spending bills to keep the government from shutting down beyond the start of a new fiscal year Oct. 1, the ongoing humanitarian crisis along the U.S.-Mexico border, and the fate of the embattled Export-Import Bank, which is up for reauthorization.
Yet House Speaker John Boehner (R-OH) and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV) are planning a brief albeit frenetic schedule for September that would let members return home again by the end of the month – to campaign through the Nov. 4 election.
Years from now, historians may look back at these tumultuous times – with the Middle East in chaos, Russia imposing its will on Ukraine, a frightening Ebola epidemic racing through western Africa, and U.S. immigration authorities still struggling to deal with scores of illegal immigrant children from Central America – and wonder what U.S. lawmakers were doing at the time.
The answer, of course, is that they were focused like lasers on their reelection campaigns.
“September is going to be brief, but busy,” Boehner advised House Republicans on a conference call Wednesday afternoon, according to The Washington Post. The speaker characterized the upcoming legislative wind sprint as an opportunity for Republicans to make their “closing argument to voters in the coming weeks,” said The Post. That will likely mean one part substantive legislative action to three parts political grandstanding.
House Republicans reportedly intend to trot out dozens of bills they passed earlier this year to spur the economy or job growth but that have languished in the Democratic-controlled Senate. House Republicans will once again demand Senate action on their ideas. While this will give the GOP useful talking points about their concerns about the middle class once they return to the campaign trail, Reid and the other Senate Democrats are almost certain to ignore calls for action on the GOP economic agenda.
The congressional calendar notes that the House will take a break on Sept. 19 for a week of observance of Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year.
If need be, the House will reconvene on September 29, then leave town again on Oct. 2 for the remainder of the election season, according to The Post.
Reid, meanwhile, intends to keep the Senate in session through Sept. 23 and then break for the Jewish holiday but not return until after Election Day. The Democrats are fighting hard to fend off a GOP challenge in a number of battleground states that will determine control of the Senate next year.
Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY), who is struggling to retain his own seat, recently predicted Congress in short order would pass a “clean” short-term spending bill or continuing resolution acceptable to Obama that would keep the government operating beyond the start of the new fiscal year.
“The only people talking about a government shutdown are the Democrats and nobody has any interest in doing that. So I think we’ll pass a clean CR that would operate the government probably into December,” McConnell said during a Fox Business Network interview. “That will be the height of the drama. Not much drama on that issue.”
Boehner said earlier this week Congress can’t address the threat posed by ISIS until Obama spells out a strategy against the terrorist organization. "It’s his responsibility as the chief executive to outline a plan that will protect American interests, protect American lives both at home and abroad,” Boehner said on the Hugh Hewitt radio show. “Until the president is willing to lay out a plan, the Congress has very few options ahead of it.”
The speaker said that while he believes Obama has the authority to step up military action against ISIS in Iraq, it is “questionable” whether that authority extends to airstrikes against the group in Syria.
One positive sign: House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy said in a memo to his members that he expects the Obama administration to send officials to the Hill to brief lawmakers on the Islamic State and the administration’s plans for responding to the group’s threat in the Middle East and in the United States, Politico reported Friday. “These hearings and briefings will be absolutely critical in helping us take the appropriate steps necessary to achieve our objective: the defeat of our terrorist enemies,” McCarthy wrote.
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