By Mike Lillis - 04/29/14 07:43 AM EDT
There’s six months to go before the elections, and Congress could get a lot done between now and then.
But don’t bet on it.
Lawmakers are back in Washington this week with a sharper eye on the midterm elections and an ever-mounting pessimism about the legislative possibilities ahead of November.
The two parties remain sharply divided on everything from jobs and the economy to energy and immigration, stirring a growing sense that very few proposals outside of must-pass items like appropriations measures will reach the president's desk this year.
Highlighting the shift to campaign mode, leaders in both chambers are lining up votes on proposals that play to their party's base, but have little chance of becoming law this Congress.
Asked this month if he expects a busy legislative landscape between now and November, House Minority Whip Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) said, "If the past is prologue, the answer to that is clearly not.”
The following is a list of items on Congress's plate.
Likely to become law
• Government funding
With the government shutdown still fresh in their minds, House GOP leaders won’t repeat the mistakes of 2013. This week, the House will launch their appropriations efforts, pushing three bills to fund Congress, the Departments of Commerce and Justice, and military construction projects and Veterans Affairs.
It is doubtful that Republicans will succeed in advancing all 12 appropriations bills before the Oct. 1 deadline, as some are hoping. But December's bipartisan budget deal between Sen. Patty Murray (D-Wash.) and Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) has established a top-line figure that should ease the process, even amid grumbling from some members on the far left and far right.
• Women's History Museum
After years of lobbying efforts by supporters on and off of Capitol Hill, legislation promoting a national women's history museum around The Mall in Washington finally has legs this year. The bill has already passed unanimously through a pair of House committees, and House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-Va.) has vowed to bring the measure to the floor, where it will likely pass easily. The Senate is expected to follow suit.
• Tax extenders
There's growing pressure on Capitol Hill to renew the tax extenders package, a long list of tax breaks for businesses and individuals alike, including multibillion-dollar credits for renewable fuel technology and research and development.
Those tax breaks expired at the end of last year, but the Senate Finance Committee passed its $85 billion renewal bill earlier this month, and House Ways and Means Chairman Dave Camp (R-Mich.) has scheduled a Tuesday hearing on the issue, focused heavily on his efforts to make several of those tax breaks permanent.
The tax extenders package is seen as the one final chance to pass major tax legislation this Congress, although there's a growing sense that such action is more likely after the elections than before.
Unlikely to become law
• Immigration reform
Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) has said repeatedly that GOP leaders want to reform the nation's immigration system. But he's rejected the bipartisan Senate-passed package due to staunch conservative opposition to the citizenship provisions in that bill, and the pressure to avoid the issue will only intensify as the elections get closer.
• Minimum wage
Obama and Democratic leaders have long pushed for an increase in the minimum wage, and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) filed cloture Monday on a bill to do just that. But Democrats don’t have the 60 votes required to defeat a GOP filibuster.
• Unemployment insurance benefits
Yet another component of the Democrats' economic agenda, the extension of emergency unemployment benefits passed the Senate this month with bipartisan support. But Boehner and the Republicans have declined to take it up, saying such a move must be accompanied by job-creation provisions.
Democrats are hoping a public pressure campaign will force GOP leaders to reconsider, though similar efforts have so far failed in the case of immigration reform, the minimum wage hike and pay equity between the genders.
• Voting rights
Powerful lawmakers in both parties introduced legislation this year to amend the 1965 Voting Rights Act in the wake of last summer's Supreme Court decision rejecting a central provision the law. But there's been little enthusiasm for the measure among conservative House Republicans. And Cantor, who's been working behind the scenes in search of tweaks that can satisfy all sides, has declined to endorse the proposal or commit to action this year.
• Charter Schools
The House is expected soon to pass bipartisan legislation promoting the expansion of charter schools, a politically thorny issue often opposed by Democrats as a threat to public schools. Although the bill is co-sponsored by Rep. George Miller (D-Calif.), who's among the most liberal members in Congress and a close ally of Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), a House aide supporting the measure said Monday that the thinking is "there's just no appetite" for the bill in the Democratically-controlled Senate ahead of the elections.
Possibly will become law
• Export-Import Bank
With the Export-Import Bank's authorization set to expire at the end of September, Democrats and other supporters are framing its renewal as vital if the nation's small businesses are to compete in the global economy. Conservative critics, including Financial Services Committee Chairman Jeb Hensarling (R-Texas), reject that argument, characterizing the federal credit agency as a form of corporate welfare.
• Highway bill
The federal highway trust fund is expected to run dry sometime this summer, but Obama's plan to provide roughly $300 billion to boost the fund was dead-on-arrival in the House, where Republicans quickly panned the proposal to cover the costs with changes to corporate tax law.
Still, every district in the country has roads and bridges that would likely be affected, and there will be intense pressure on members of both parties to replenish the pot.
"That's an issue," a House aide said Monday, "that everybody understands."
• Patent reform
Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) has scheduled a markup next week on legislation bill aimed to rein in "patent trolls," after working for months behind the scenes to address concerns with members of both parties. But it remains uncertain if he has the votes to get it out of the committee, let alone pass the bill on the chamber floor.
A House bill, sponsored by House Judiciary Chairman Bob Goodlatte (R-Va.), passed through the lower chamber last year with bipartisan support.