Congress leaves D.C. with full agenda

Congress is heading home for a July Fourth break with a step forward for a major immigration bill, the real threat of higher interest rates on some student loans, and a bevy of unfinished legislative items that will greet lawmakers upon their return to Washington, D.C.

The biggest action in the month of June came on Thursday afternoon, as the Senate voted 68-32 to approve a sweeping immigration reform bill. 14 Republicans broke ranks to back the plan, which now goes to the U.S. House.

As for what happens next in the House, Speaker John Boehner still wasn’t showing his hand to reporters.

“I think we’re going to wait to see what our constituents say next week,” Boehner told reporters, referring to the week off for the House and Senate which will likely include some town halls back home.

“We’ll make some decisions about how we go forward,” Boehner said.

Realistically, there isn’t much time – even though the month of June isn’t even over.

“It’s got to be done between now and the end of the year,” said Sen. Saxby Chambliss (R-GA), who went straight from the Senate immigration vote to the Speaker’s office for talks on immigration reform details.

“Six months goes by in a hurry in D.C.,” Chambliss rightly observed.

In fact, the next few months will go by very quickly, as after a break week, lawmakers will have four work weeks until the first Friday in August, and then be off until the week after Labor Day.

If you look at the House schedule, there are only 16 legislative work days on the calendar between now and September 9 – that makes it easy to envision an immigration bill slipping into September.

As for the final Senate version of immigration reform, it’s now available for your reading pleasure, weighing in at 1198 pages – so here’s your homework assignment during the July Fourth Recess (maybe you can take it to the pool and use it to avoid speaking to that bothersome neighbor of yours.)

While progress was made on immigration reform, the Senate – or more accurately, Senate Democrats – could not strike a deal on student loan interest rates, some of which are set to double effective July 1.

Demonstrating the divide among Democrats yesterday was that there were dueling news conferences involving different factions of the party on the best solution; Republicans meanwhile sat on the sidelines and kept reminding reporters that the House passed its bill back in May.

That plan had some similarities to a White House plan on how to deal with subsidized Stafford loans, as the President only spoke out on the issue one time in the last month, as opposed to last year when he hammered the GOP over the issue.

“We’ve been working very, very hard,” said Sen. Debbie Stabenow (D-MI), one of the Democrats who has resisted the GOP plan. “It’s been a very frustrating situation.”

Stabenow told reporters that votes might be held on July 10 in the Senate on the student loan interest rate issue.

On the budget front, the House and Senate remain well behind in their work on appropriations bills for next year; those spending measures are supposed to be done by October 1, but Congress hasn’t met the deadline of the new fiscal year since 1994.

And they won’t hit that deadline again this year, either.

As of now, the House has only approved two spending bills for 2014; the Senate has not pushed one bill to the floor.

More importantly, the divide between the two sides when it comes to the bottom line of those twelve budget bills is even more important – House Republicans would spend $967 billion on the discretionary budget (everything outside of Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security.)

Senate Democrats meanwhile have a plan that assumes the sequester is wiped away with tax increases that the GOP will not support, as the Democratic budget plan would spend $1.058 trillion – that’s a difference of $91 billion.

Sooner or later, some deal will have to be struck on spending, probably in a stop gap budget plan that will have to be approved in September.

Oh, and don’t forget that at some point, lawmakers have to deal with the debt ceiling.

That issue played a big role in the budget gridlock that has stopped work on the non-binding budget resolution, as Senate Republicans have repeatedly blocked Democratic efforts to start House-Senate negotiations on that budget blueprint.

Remember – this is the document that Republicans ripped Senate Democrats about – charging that Democrats hadn’t passed a budget in four years.

But when Democrats did move a budget resolution this year, Republicans weren’t interested in trying to bridge the differences between the spending plans of the House and Senate.

(It is also a reminder that House and Senate leaders should ignore the concerns of their lawmakers on this non-binding issue; one reason the Democrats didn’t vote on a budget resolution in recent years was the fear that Republicans would drown them in “message” votes which might hurt in the elections. Does anyone remember any of the votes from back in March in the Senate on the budget resolution? Other than maybe one vote on the medical device tax, that answer is most likely “No.”)

When lawmakers return in July, the House will have to try again to pass a Farm Bill; there was talk on Thursday that maybe the bill would be split in two in an effort to move it forward. Speaker Boehner did not tip his hand on what he might try.

So as you check your own summer calendar, think about how much time off you would have from work if you only had to work four of the next ten weeks.

That’s the schedule that Congress has.

So, don’t be surprised if you read another blog post from me on Friday August 2, which says the Congress is going home for an extended summer break with a lot of unfinished business still on the agenda.