Senate

Lawmakers prepare for end-of-year dash

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Lawmakers are preparing for an end-of-the-year dash as they return to Washington with little time to tackle a handful of policy fights.

Congress will be under pressure to wrap up work on a full plate of divisive issues after members return from a weeklong Thanksgiving recess.

{mosads}Both chambers are expected to be in session for approximately 15 days, giving them limited time to send legislation to President Obama’s desk or be forced to kick the can to January.

The looming battles — including avoiding a government shutdown — could challenge Republicans’ desire to show they can govern heading into the 2016 election, as well as provide a fresh challenges for new House Speaker Paul Ryan (R-Wis.).

Here’s a look at the biggest issues that lawmakers still need to tackle:

 

Highway bill

The first deadline lawmakers face is passing a long-term infrastructure bill after approving another short-term funding patch before leaving for Thanksgiving.

Lawmakers only have a matter of days to get a long-term deal and avoid a shutdown of federal highway funding, with the current patch set to expire on Friday, Dec. 4.

Sen. James Inhofe (R-Okla.) initially expressed optimism that House and Senate bills could be reconciled “in a matter of hours,” and House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee Chairman Bill Shuster (R-Pa.) declared separately that the recently passed short-term measure would be the “last extension.”

But lawmakers have gotten bogged down in negotiations over how to reconcile differences in the two bills. They’re also facing pressure from conservative groups to drop language reauthorizing the Export-Import Bank’s charter and skepticism from Republican lawmakers over only guaranteeing three years of funding for a six-year bill.

Inhofe, however, remains optimistic that negotiators will be able to seal an agreement, telling The Oklahoman that lawmakers “are very close to a product that country has needed for far too long.”

 

Reconciliation

The Senate is heading for a battle over ObamaCare, as Senate Republicans gear up to use a parliamentary maneuver to repeal parts of the president’s signature healthcare law.

Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) said that lawmakers would turn to the measure after Thanksgiving and fast track the House-passed bill to the Senate calendar, which will allow it to be brought up on the floor.

But the legislation is threatening to divide Republicans, raising questions over whether or not leadership will be able to get the 51 votes needed to move the proposal through the upper chamber.

Sens. Marco Rubio (Fla.) and Ted Cruz (Texas), who are both running for the Republican presidential nomination, and Sen. Mike Lee (R-Utah) have threatened to oppose any legislation that doesn’t fully repeal ObamaCare.

If the three oppose the legislation, McConnell would need the support of every other Republican senator to get the reconciliation bill passed.

But a push to link cutting off federal funding for Planned Parenthood to the repeal package has raised concerns from moderate Republican Sen. Susan Collins (Maine) and blue-state lawmakers up for reelection in 2016, including Sens. Mark Kirk (R-Ill.) and Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska).

“I do not think it’s fair nor good policy to completely defund Planned Parenthood. I called months ago for an investigation into the allegations about the improper sale of fetal tissue,” Collins said ahead of the Thanksgiving break. But Collins noted that she’s “looking at the whole bill. The Senate hasn’t filed its version of the bill.”

Senate Democrats previously blocked legislation that would have defunded Planned Parenthood and redirected the money to other women’s health providers. Kirk joined Democrats to vote against the legislation.

With the president opposed to any attempt to roll back ObamaCare, the Senate could spend its limited legislative days, including a potentially hourslong vote-a-rama on amendments, to move a bill the president is all but guaranteed to veto.

 

Syrian refugees

A fight over Syrian refugees is shifting to the Senate after Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) fast-tracked House-passed legislation that halts the president’s resettlement plan.

While the legislation passed the House with a veto-proof majority — including the support of 47 Democrats — it could face a tougher path in the upper chamber, where Democratic leadership has united against it.

Referring to the House legislation, Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) told reporters that the upper chamber wouldn’t be “dealing with it over here” and that “it won’t get passed.”

Rank-and-file Democrats are also remaining noncommittal on the House legislation, which would require the administration to certify that Syrian and Iraqi refugees aren’t a security threat.

If every Republican supports the legislation, McConnell would need at least six Democrats to break rank and help the proposal get over a procedural hurdle.

But he’s also facing pushback from within his own party, with Sens. Jeff Sessions (R-Ala.) and Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.) both suggesting they are on the fence.

“We’ll see. I’ve not supported a pause or a moratorium, and I think we ought to focus more on where the real problems are,” Flake said, asked if he would support the House bill on a cloture vote. “Like I said, my preference would be to focus on the areas of higher potential problems, so I would rather focus on visa waiver.”

Democrats, meanwhile, are focused on the Visa Waiver Program, which allows residents of nearly 40 countries to enter the United States without a visa. They’re also doubling down on legislation that would close the “terrorist background check” loophole, which allows suspected or known terrorists to buy a firearm or explosive.

Thirty-six Democrats, as well as Independent Sens. Bernie Sanders (Vt.) and Angus King (Maine), sent a letter over the Thanksgiving recess to Republican leadership demanding that they bring the legislation up for a vote.

 

Government funding

The debate over Syrian refugees is also emerging as the latest potential policy hurdle in the effort to get legislation funding the government passed by mid-December.

In an early sign of trouble, a push by Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.), who is running for president, to get a vote on blocking benefits for new refugees derailed a bill funding the Department of Transportation and the Department of Housing and Urban Development.

With Paul threatening to block any attempt to allow the legislation to come up for a procedural vote, Collins said the transportation housing bill will likely need to be folded into a broader omnibus spending bill.

Conservative Republicans are also pushing to tie the blocking of refugee resettlement funding to the larger spending legislation.

In the House, Rep. Brian Babin (R-Texas) has dozens of backers in his effort to bar relocation funding. Meanwhile, Sessions is asking his colleagues to include a provision blocking funding until Congress votes on and approves a plan from the Obama administration.

A rider on Syrian refugees isn’t the only hurdle facing the funding bill. Lawmakers are also gearing up to battle over a slate of policy issues including financial regulations, the environment and the Affordable Care Act.

Rubio is hoping to deliver a blow to ObamaCare, asking lawmakers to use the spending legislation to repeal the Affordable Care Act’s “risk corridor” provisions, meant to help protect insurance companies against unforeseen expenses.

“If the only way ObamaCare can continue is for taxpayers to bail out health insurers that lose money because of it, that’s as good an indication as any that the whole law should be repealed and replaced,” the Florida Republican wrote in a letter to the Appropriations Committee.  

Tags Angus King Bernie Sanders Harry Reid James Inhofe Jeff Flake Jeff Sessions Lisa Murkowski Marco Rubio Mark Kirk Mike Lee Mitch McConnell Paul Ryan Rand Paul Susan Collins Ted Cruz

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