Five fights waiting for Congress this fall

Lawmakers are heading home for a five-week break, but they’ll have a full plate of tough issues waiting for them they return to Washington.

On their way out the exits, lawmakers kicked the can on a number of political fights to September, setting themselves on a collision course with an unenviable—and already tight—fall schedule.

The rolling policy fights could grind Congress to a halt heading into the 2016 elections, a move that threatens to undercut Majority Leader Mitch McConnellAddison (Mitch) Mitchell McConnellLawmakers feel pressure on guns Bipartisan group of House lawmakers urge action on Export-Import Bank nominees Curbelo Dem rival lashes out over immigration failure MORE’s (R-Ky.) plans to show that Republicans can restore order to Washington as he defends 24 seats.

Here are the five biggest fights awaiting lawmakers:


A months-long battle over the Iran nuclear deal will come to a head in mid-September, with lawmakers having less than two weeks to approve or disapprove of the agreement once they return to Congress on Sept. 8.

The White House has launched an all-out offensive to shore up support among Democrats and prevent a potential veto override. Administration officials will provide a final classified briefing to the Senate Foreign Relations Committee on Monday before lawmakers leave town.

Opponents want to use the August recess to build momentum for killing the deal, and they’re expected to heavily outspend supporters of the agreement. They’re hoping to put pressure on roughly a dozen Senate Democrats, including Sen. Chuck SchumerCharles (Chuck) Ellis SchumerDemocrats now attack internet rules they once embraced Schumer: Trump budget would ‘cripple’ gun background checks Schumer: Senate Republicans' silence 'deafening' on guns, Russia MORE (D-N.Y.), expected to be the next Democratic leader.

Because the deal wasn't finalized in time, Congress has 60 days of review time instead of the expected 30. Senate Democrats have brushed aside suggestions that puts them in a touch spot. But a group tied to the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC), an influential pro-Israel outside group, is already releasing TV ads and urging its backers to press lawmakers to oppose the deal.

Most Democrats remain undecided heading into the break and will be barraged by constituents and TV ads trying to sway their decision.

Government funding

The Senate will have to tackle an issue they’ve sidestepped during the first of the year: How to fund the government by the end of September.

Democrats blocked efforts to pass a defense appropriations bill earlier this year, and McConnell has yet to try to move another piece of the spending pie.

The White House and congressional Democrats want Republican leaders to sit down and negotiate a deal to roll back congressionally-mandated budget caps for defense and nondefense spending.

But McConnell suggested that it was too early to discuss the Senate’s path forward or any potential talks with the White House. “We’re not talking about negotiations ... We’ll come back after August [and] we’ll discuss a way forward,” he said.

The already divisive fight over government funding has a new hurdle with 18 House Republicans pledging to tie spending to defunding Planned Parenthood, sparking a new round of fears about a government shutdown.

Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) warned that Senate Democrats would block a spending bill that cuts off federal funding, adding that “this is a Republican path to a shut down.”

Planned Parenthood is in Republican crosshairs after a string of videos showed officials discussing the donation of fetal tissue.

Debt ceiling

The Obama administration is already sounding the alarm on this coming fight, saying that Congress will need to raise the debt ceiling by late October to avoid a default.

Treasury Secretary Jacob Lew tried to put the issue on Congress’ radar telling lawmakers in a letter that he could keep the government afloat for the time being. But the already politically contentious fight could come as the battle for the Republican presidential nomination heats up. Several candidates have made blocking an increase a key issue.

Sen. Ted CruzRafael (Ted) Edward CruzOvernight Health Care: Trump eases rules on insurance outside ObamaCare | HHS office on religious rights gets 300 complaints in a month | GOP chair eyes opioid bill vote by Memorial Day HHS official put on leave amid probe into social media posts Trump, Pence to address CPAC this week MORE (R-Texas), who is running for president, led an effort to defund ObamaCare in 2013 forcing a shutdown. His campaign is already touting his hardball stance on the debt limit, saying the Texas Republican “set an early, high standard for meaningful Republican opposition to increasing the debt ceiling.”

Cruz, fresh off a fight with McConnell over Iran and the Export-Import Bank, hasn't shied away from taking shots at his party leader. “The McConnell-Reid leadership team is united in favor of big government spending and debt and power,” he said this week.

House Speaker John BoehnerJohn Andrew BoehnerRestoring fiscal sanity requires bipartisan courage GOP congressman slams primary rival for Ryan donations Speculation swirls about Kevin McCarthy’s future MORE (R-Ohio) though sought to downplay the potential showdown — and Congress’ tight schedule — joking with reporters that “we're going to glide right through it. It's going to be exciting.”

Highway funding

Senators were hoping to check a long-term highway bill off their list before heading home to their constituents. Instead, senators were forced to punt the issue until late October, after House lawmakers refused to touch their six-year bill and skipped out of Washington a day early, leaving behind a three-month stopgap.

House lawmakers will now have to craft a long-term bill of their own, something the upper chamber hopes they can complete in September, and head to a potentially contentious conference committee with the Senate.

House lawmakers have suggested they want to tie the highway legislation to tax reform, something that’s been shot down by senior Senate Republicans including McConnell and Sen. Orrin HatchOrrin Grant HatchOvernight Finance: NAFTA defenders dig in | Tech pushes Treasury to fight EU on taxes | AT&T faces setback in merger trial | Dems make new case against Trump tax law | Trump fuels fight over gas tax What sort of senator will Mitt Romney be? Not a backbencher, even day one Lawmaker interest in NAFTA intensifies amid Trump moves MORE (R-Utah), the Finance Committee chairman.

But, McConnell sounded a note of optimism this week that the two sides would be able to overcome their differences in a timely manner, saying that “on the highway bill, hopefully it won’t be piling up.” 

Criminal justice reform

President Obama’s call to overhaul mandatory minimum sentencing guidelines is getting pushed to the second half of the year.

The issue has divided Senate Republicans, with Sen. Chuck GrassleyCharles (Chuck) Ernest GrassleyPavlich: The claim Trump let the mentally ill get guns is a lie Congress fails miserably: For Asian-Americans, immigration proposals are personal attacks Grassley, Dems step up battle over judicial nominees MORE (R-Iowa), tasked with trying to bring together law-and-order types with the more libertarian wing of his party. 

Grassley, the chairman of the Judiciary Committee, has previously opposed lowering minimum sentences for nonviolent drug offenders, and reform advocates worry that any bill that gets his stamp of approval won’t go as far as they want.

Sen. John CornynJohn CornynLawmakers feel pressure on guns Kasich’s campaign website tones down gun language after Florida shooting Murphy: Trump’s support for background check bill shows gun politics ‘shifting rapidly’ MORE (R-Texas) sounded cautiously optimistic that lawmakers could tee up the issue for fall consideration, potentially unveiling a proposal before they leave town.

“We've got a working group that I think has come up with a package that's acceptable to Sen. Grassley, the chairman of the Judiciary Committee,” the No. 2 Senate Republican said. “And my hope is we'll have a hearing and perhaps even a markup as early as next week on that topic.”

But the committee hasn’t scheduled a hearing on the issue yet for next week, and criminal justice reform isn’t on the agenda for Thursday’s meeting.