Congress returns, more focused on November elections than ever

Democrats and Republicans are returning to Congress more focused on energizing the midterm electorate than moving legislation.

The GOP believes it is months away from an election that will hand it control of the Senate, giving it a check on President Obama's final two years in office.

House Republicans plan to bring legislation to the floor authorizing a lawsuit against Obama's use of executive action, a move they believe will underline the importance to their base voters of coming to the polls in November to elect a GOP House and Senate.

The White House and Senate Democrats are equally focused on winning in November. They see the House lawsuit as a classic case of Republican overreach, and believe it will backfire.

In recent days, Democrats also have directed their message to women voters in the wake of a Supreme Court decision that ruled ObamaCare's contraception mandate violated federal law.

Such an atmosphere leaves little room for legislating, and hopes have dimmed that Congress will get much done in July, the final month it will dedicate to full-time legislating.

Congress only has 29 legislative days left in 2014, and the majority will be in the next four weeks.

A few things actually could get done. Here's at look at the agenda:

• Veterans healthcare: Headlines surrounding the scandal of protracted wait times at healthcare facilities run by the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) have faded with the resignation of VA Secretary Eric Shinseki.

Weeks later, negotiators between the House and Senate are still trying to finalize legislation making it easier to fire poor-performing agency executives while offering veterans more freedom to seek care outside the government-run system.

Failing to complete the bill would be another black eye for a Congress that is already being criticized as one of the least productive in history. Substantial disagreements remain over how to offset the expense of the proposed VA reforms, an issue complicated recently when the Congressional Budget Office estimated the Senate bill would ultimately cost $50 billion per year and the House bill would run $44 billion over five years.

Still, this seems like an area where Congress can get a bill done. Negotiators have met with the directors of the CBO and VA, something that suggests they're looking for a way to reduce the CBO score.

Negotiators on the conference committee are eying ways to bring those costs down, including the idea of scaling back eligibility for new benefits proposed under the bills. Such changes would not be welcomed by veterans groups, but they would likely prove more palatable, in the eyes of lawmakers, than returning to their districts empty handed.

• International trade: Who would have thought that the Export-Import (Ex-Im) Bank's authorization would become a hot political issue?

That's what happened when new House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) announced his opposition days after his election.

House conservatives have turned against the bank, arguing its loans to companies represent a form of crony capitalism. Their opposition, and their pressure on leadership, means the bank's charter, set to expire on Oct. 1, is in real danger despite support from the Chamber of Commerce and other business groups.

That's created a bit of an opportunity for Democrats, who see a chance to tout their business credentials and portray the GOP as bowing to the Tea Party. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) has vowed to vote on a renewal bill this month.

Whether anything gets done will depend on the House, where the key player is Financial Services Chairman Jeb Hensarling (R-Texas), a fierce opponent of the bank. Will he allow a compromise bill to move through his committee? Business groups hope so.

• Highway funding: The federal highway trust fund is expected to run dry in August, as the funding stream provided by the federal gas tax adds up only to about $34 billion per year – far shy of the $50 billion in infrastructure spending allowed by the current transportation law, which expires Oct. 1.

The gap has left lawmakers haggling over a way to bridge it, with some calling for a hike in the 18.4 cents-per-gallon gas tax – the rate since 1993. Most conservatives are opposed to such an increase, however, and the proposal almost certainly doesn't stand a chance in an election year.

Still, every district in the country has infrastructure projects that would likely be affected, and there will be intense pressure on members of both parties to replenish the pot, even if it means passing a short-term patch to get them through the elections.

Obama, meanwhile, has said he won't step in to take executive steps in the absence of congressional action.

"That’s something that we need Congress to help us on," he said during an economic speech last Thursday.

• Terror insurance: Senate and House committees have both passed bills to extend the Terrorism Risk Insurance Act (TRIA), which provides relief to businesses by empowering the government to pay out insurance claims following terrorist attacks.

But while both parties have endorsed the concept, conservatives have been wary of extending a program – created as a response to the Sept. 11 attacks 13 years ago – that was designed to provide short-term relief to the embattled insurance industry in the wake of the tragedy.

Last month's vote in the Senate Banking Committee was unanimous to extend TRIA for seven years; a House proposal, to renew the program for five years, passed the Financial Services panel more recently on a party-line vote.

If the sides can't reach a deal on a long-term renewal, Hensarling has said he'll focus on a six-month extension, punting the issue into the next Congress.

• National security: The bombshell revelations exposed last year by former National Security Agency (NSA) contractor Edward Snowden has led to bipartisan calls to rein in the sweep of the agency's surveillance powers. But although the USA Freedom Act has flown through a pair of committees in the House, last-minute changes were panned by privacy advocates and technology companies, who say it's been diluted to the point of ineffectiveness.

Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) has proposed similar legislation, but has yet to schedule a hearing on the proposal, saying only that he'll do so this summer. When he does, he'll face plenty of pressure from those groups to keep the teeth in his bill – and to ensure that they survive subsequent negotiations with House Republicans.

• Government funding: The government shutdown of last October sunk Congress's approval ratings in the eyes of the public – the Republicans' in particular – and neither side wants to repeat that embarrassment heading into the elections.

House Republicans will use July to continue moving spending bills through the committee process and on to the floor, though it remains unclear if they'll succeed in advancing all 12 appropriations bills before the end of the fiscal year, Sept. 30.

December's bipartisan budget deal between Sen. Patty Murray (D-Wash.) and Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) has established a top-line figure that many think will grease the process, even as some members on the far left and far right are pushing back. But House Majority Leader Eric Cantor's (R-Va.) defeat by a Tea Party favorite critical of government spending could complicate the debate, if conservatives fearing a similar fate grow wary of backing spending levels that don't have the blessing of conservative groups.

Congress has until Oct. 1 to act to prevent another shutdown, and the debate over appropriations will extend beyond the August recess and likely push up against that deadline.

If the sides can't agree on individual spending bills, they'll likely pursue a shorter-term stopgap measure – a so-called continuing resolution – to take them at least into the lame-duck session, as they've done in years past.