Five things to know as Congress takes a five-week summer recess

Greg Nash

Congress started a five-week recess on Friday night after the House approved an immigration package that was largely in line with what conservatives in the GOP conference wanted.

Most senators had left a day earlier after completing work on a highway funding bill and a Veterans Department overhaul.

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Lawmakers have been focused all year on November, and the drive for control of the Senate will tick up a notch over August.

Here are five things to know about the recess.

Boehner has shelved outreach to Hispanics

House GOP leaders made clear Friday that their efforts to reach out to Hispanic voters will be postponed until 2015 if not later.

By passing legislation to crack down on unaccompanied minors crossing the border from Central America and defunding President Obama’s 2012 order to defer deportations of Dream Act-eligible immigrants, House GOP leaders picked their conservative base over Hispanics, who will have a small impact on the midterm elections.  

Rep. Steve King (R-Iowa), the leading opponent to immigration reform in the House, extolled his leadership for letting him shape its response to the Texas border crisis.

“It’s like I ordered it off the menu,” he said.

Pro-immigrant advocacy groups say Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) has seriously alienated Hispanic voters as a result.

“The legislation is entirely about enforcement,” said Brent Wilkes, national executive director for the League of United Latin American Citizens. “It’s something the Latino community is going to rally against Republicans for doing.”

It’s a dramatic turn from shortly after the 2012 election, when Boehner told ABC’s Diane Sawyer that that a comprehensive approach to immigration reform was “long overdue.”

Senate strategists say Colorado, where Hispanics make up more than 20 percent of the population, is the only Senate battleground where Hispanic voters will prove to be a force.

Harry Reid can’t wait for this year to be over

Senate Democrats are fretting Election Day but also can’t wait for their midterm ordeal to be over.

Democratic senators told The Hill their biggest concern is the likelihood of low turnout among Democratic voters in November, which could cost them their majority.

They have tried to push a message of economic inequality but it’s been overwhelmed by a series of foreign policy crises that senior White House adviser Dan Pfeiffer recently acknowledged have blunted the party’s message.

Vulnerable Senate Democrats have little recourse but to campaign hard at home and avoid making gaffes in Washington.

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) has shut down much of the Senate floor debate to protect his endangered colleagues from taking tough votes, but some Democrats are starting to chafe under the strict control.

Their political situation is made all the more uncomfortable by a steady barrage of attack ads funding by outside groups. Conservative non-party committees have spent $77.7 million compared to the $60.4 million spent by liberal groups, according to the Center for Responsive Politics.

Cruz is king of newly energized Tea Party

Two years ago, Reid proclaimed “the Tea Party’s dying out as the economy’s getting better slowly.”

After a Tea Party-fueled government shutdown in the fall of 2013 and a conservative rebellion that nearly scuttled border legislation in the House last week, the Tea Party has proved it’s far from dead.

Political pundits wondered earlier this year if the Tea Party’s influence had diminished after the GOP establishment beat back conservative primary challengers to a variety of their favored candidates, such as Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell (R) in Kentucky.

Just as soon as some handicappers were proclaiming the Tea Party had little impact on primary season, it scored one of its biggest scalps in recent years, former House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-Va.).

David Brat, a conservative economics professor, pummeled Cantor mercilessly over immigration reform, sending reverberations through the GOP conference.

Republican lawmakers showed they didn’t want to risk the Tea Party’s wrath last week when they let King and Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) re-write its legislative response to the Texas border crisis.

GOP strategist Ron Bonjean said the Tea Party has only seemed quiet because it has not had a meaningful battle to fight with the establishment since the 2013 government shutdown.

“There are fewer issues for the Tea Party to pick battles now. That’s why you see this immigration thing pop up now, the border issue, as a big thing,” he said. “If you look at the past seven months, we haven’t seen anything since the government shutdown in terms of a big Tea Party fight and now we have with immigration.”

This has been a boon for Cruz, who leapt back into the national spotlight after adopting a relatively low profile for much of this year.

“John Boehner may have the gavel but Ted Cruz has the power,” Pfeiffer, a senior adviser to Obama, told ABC Sunday.

Cruz is using his new political momentum to position himself for the White House in 2016. He is traveling to Iowa this weekend and next weekend to lay the groundwork for a campaign.

Obama’s feeling punchy

With little prospect of winning Republican support for any of his agenda in Congress and his reelection safely behind him, Obama has not been afraid to openly mock Republicans during public appearances.

He ribbed GOP leaders during a speech in Kansas City, Mo., last week for “hating” and “being mad all the time,” drawing laughs from his audience.

“Stop just hating all the time. C'mon ... I know they're not happy that I'm president but that's OK. I got a couple of years left. C'mon ... then you can be mad at the next president,” he quipped.

To recharge his batteries, Obama has planned a two-week vacation in Martha’s Vineyard this month, the longest of his presidency.

John McCain can be ignored but not forever

Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) has warned any reporter or television host who would listen to him over the past five years that Iran, Iraq and Russia remained serious national security threats.

While the nation slowly climbed out of the financial collapse of 2008 and the parties spent much of their time fighting over ObamaCare, few in Washington paid much attention.

Heading into the August recess, McCain has been vindicated, although it's likely small consolation for an elder statesman watching his country and party drift toward Sen. Rand Paul’s (R-Ky.) view that foreign entanglements should be avoided as much as possible.

Russian President Vladimir Putin’s aggressive stance toward the Ukraine shows he is intent on restoring the former glory of the Soviet Union, threatening stability in Europe and the Near East.

A long-term nuclear deal with Iran remains elusive and Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, has revealed his country’s appetite for becoming a nuclear power by demanding the right to operate 190,000 centrifuges.

In Iraq, a civil war has erupted in the security vacuum left by the departure of U.S. forces. A militant group once linked to al Qaeda, the Islamic State in Syria and Iraq (ISIS), captured Mosul and threatened to overrun Baghdad.

Critics say Obama and Congress appeared to be caught flatfooted by the rapid deterioration of security and the danger of a new terrorist safe haven emerging.

“What’s been most striking over the last several months is the degree to which when things have put on the president’s plate ... you’ve seen the president just say that he’s not going down that road,” said Gary Schmitt, co-director of the Marilyn Ware Center for Security Studies at the American Enterprise Institute. “He’s really been much more inclined to let things play out.”

“He has the expectation that these things can be handled at a much lower level of U.S. commitment,” he added of Obama.