Wednesday, January 6, 2016

Congress Returns for Abbreviated 2016

 Drew Thies

The 114th Congress is only halfway over, but a majority of its legislative accomplishments might already be on the books.

The House returned to vote Tuesday with official legislative business in the Senate delayed until next week, but the presidential election later in the year is already beginning to weigh heavily on lawmakers’ minds.

The Republican-led Congress and Democratic White House closed out a surprisingly productive 2015, passing a $1.15 trillion omnibus spending bill and $680 billion extension of tax breaks, all on top of a two-year budget agreement pushed through by then-Speaker John Boehner after he announced his retirement. This gives lawmakers only one legislative hurdle to contend with this year: passing a new a round of appropriations bills by the end of September.

There are a host of lower-tier areas and pet projects that lawmakers are eyeing, but the election will be the lens through which all legislation is viewed. Unlike last year, when Congress repealed and replaced the Medicare Sustainable Growth Rate, established long-term highway funding, and revamped No Child Left Behind, this year has less room for bills that are not “must-pass” pieces of legislation.

Leadership in both chambers has already precluded the chance of landmark legislation being passed before there is a new President in the White House. Speaker Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) said that any attempt at immigration reform will have to wait until 2017, and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell indicated that he’d like to take action on major trade deals only after the 2016 election.

Some lawmakers are hopeful about the prospects of smaller projects. “We have accomplished a lot of mid-sized bills, and we continue to do that,” said Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.). “I would expect we would, at least for the first six months.”

With the Presidency at stake and multiple tightly contested Senate races, leadership in both parties will be angling for policy wins that can be spun into political victories.

Republicans may look to pass messaging bills through the House, though their fate is uncertain, if not completely diminished, upon their arrival in the Senate. Senate Democrats have remained united, filibustering nearly every bill targeting Democratic priorities such as the Affordable Care Act and President Obama’s anti-climate change agenda before a veto could even be issued.

“Our No. 1 goal for the next year is to put together a complete alternative to the left’s agenda,” Ryan said in December in one of his first major speeches as speaker. “Even if [Obama] won’t sign them into law, we will put out specific proposals and give the people a real choice.”

Lawmakers do not have much time to push through special projects, either, as both chambers are only in session for about half the year, giving Members of Congress ample time to spend campaigning in their hometowns and states.

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