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 McConnellGun proposal picks up GOP support Children’s health-care bill faces new obstacles Dems see Trump as potential ally on gun reform 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. Charles SchumerCharles (Chuck) Ellis SchumerOvernight Health Care: Schumer calls for tying ObamaCare fix to children's health insurance | Puerto Rico's water woes worsen | Dems plead for nursing home residents' right to sue Crying on TV doesn't qualify Kimmel to set nation's gun agenda Trump knocks ‘fake’ news coverage of his trip to Puerto Rico 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 CruzWhatever you think the Alabama special election means, you’re probably wrong This week: Congress gets ball rolling on tax reform Week ahead: Senators work toward deal to fix ObamaCare markets 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 Boehner‘Lone wolf’ characterization of mass murderers is the epitome of white privilege Pelosi urges Ryan to create select committee on gun violence Ex-congressman Michael Grimm formally announces bid for old seat 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 HatchGOP eyes limits on investor tax break Children’s health-care bill faces new obstacles Overnight Finance: White House requests B for disaster relief | Ex-Equifax chief grilled over stock sales | House panel approves B for border wall | Tax plan puts swing-state Republicans in tough spot 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 GrassleyRepublicans jockey for position on immigration House clears bill to combat crimes against elderly Grassley: DACA deal wouldn't need border wall funding 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 CornynGun proposal picks up GOP support House bill set to reignite debate on warrantless surveillance Republicans jockey for position on immigration 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.