Congress stumbles toward a summer break

The focus in the Congress this week is on getting a few things done before the annual summer break for lawmakers, as after this Friday, the House and Senate won’t be in legislative session again until after Labor Day, what’s known in Washington, D.C. as the August Recess.

Usually, the run to the August break in Congress is filled with late nights in July, as the House and Senate would feverishly work on spending bills and other major legislation.

But that’s how it used to be when I was a young reporter, not how the House and Senate operate these days – as in recent years, the Congress has routinely punted on the budget, instead relying each year on a temporary spending plan to keep the government running.

Let’s take a look at some of the things sure to be discussed this week in the U.S. Capitol:

1. Extra money for the border in limbo

As this final week before the August recess begins, the Senate is poised to start work on a bill from Democrats that would fund $2.7 billion for emergency border work – $1 billion less than requested by President Obama. Republicans in the House have not yet produced a companion bill, and at this point, it’s not even on the schedule for House members, who could leave town as early as Thursday. “Possible consideration of Supplemental Appropriations related to the situation along the Southern border,” is all the House schedule states at this point.

2. Tentative deal on VA reform bill 

After talks almost broke down late last week, a weekend of negotiations produced what was described as “significant progress” on a VA reform agreement.  “I want something before we leave,” House Veterans Committee Chairman Rep. Jeff Miller (R-FL) told me on Sunday.   “We are getting close,” Miller added.  Some reports characterized it as a tentative deal between Miller and Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT), who chairs the Senate Veterans Committee.  Maybe the best option might be to announce a deal, and have the staff flesh out the details over the summer break – but lawmakers also want to see if they can finish this reform plan by the end of the week.  Stay tuned on this one.  It may be one of the few positive things to be accomplished by lawmakers before they leave for the August break.

3. Spending bills not close to being finished

Once again this year, the Congress won’t come close to finishing its budget work by October 1, when the new fiscal year begins. At this point, the House has approved seven of the 12 spending bills for 2015, while the Senate has taken no votes on any of those bills. Neither chamber has a spending bill on the schedule this week, which tells you they aren’t exactly at the top of the agenda. (2014 is actually better than last year, when the House had approved four bills by this point, and the Senate had approved zero.) The last time the Congress finished its budget work on time was 1996 – 18 years ago. It has only happened a handful of times since the 1970’s.

4. Republicans will push ahead with Obama lawsuit

Before leaving town, Republicans in the House are expected to force a vote on a plan that would authorize a lawsuit against President Obama over regulatory changes made with regards to the employer mandate under the Obama health law. The GOP resolution does not specifically authorize any amount of money for this legal effort, which has been estimated to be over $3 million. How many Democrats will vote for this resolution? While a number voted to delay the employer mandate, it wouldn’t surprise me if no Democrats joined this lawsuit push.

5. Will the Senate have a Friday vote?

Sometimes the last minute rush to leave town often translates into votes at the last minute on a Friday (sort of like how many of us cram all kinds of work in just before we take a vacation). As mentioned above, the House is not scheduled to be in session this Friday; theoretically, the Senate could be in session if there is a bill that needs action. So far this year, the Senate has not conducted a roll call vote on a Friday. The last time the Senate held a vote on a Friday was December 20, 2013. Let that sink in for a minute. Senators have had every Friday off from legislative work for the last seven months.

6. Congress is supposed to leave town by July 31

Most people working on Capitol Hill probably have no idea that there is a federal law on the books which requires the Congress to adjourn sine die by July 31 of each year. The law requiring that is the Legislative Reorganization Act of 1970, which continued a provision that had been in the Legislative Reorganization Act of 1946. When my parents arrived on Capitol Hill in 1959 as staffers, there was one Congressman, Rep. Noah Mason of Illinois, who would go home by the end of July whether the Congress was finished with the year’s work or not. Congress will have to waive that 1970 law this week before going home for a five week summer break that many Americans could only dream of having from their day jobs.  This year, the break goes until the week of September 8.