Congress set for chaotic fall sprint

Lawmakers are preparing to return to a chaotic fall in Washington, paving the way for an end-of-year legislative sprint.

In addition to hot-button issues like background checks, Congress has several must-pass bills on its agenda, including spending legislation to prevent a government shutdown on Oct. 1.

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The to-do list leaves lawmakers little time to spare as they map out the legislative schedule for the roughly 40 days in which both chambers will be in session between now and the end of the calendar year.

Here are seven issues to watch as Congress returns for the final stretch of 2019.

Guns

When the House and Senate gavel in next week, it will be the first time Congress is in legislative session since a pair of mass shootings in Texas and one in Ohio.

Shortly after the early August massacres in El Paso, Texas, and Dayton, Ohio, lawmakers floated myriad potential responses to gun violence — from expanded background checks to studying mental health and the impact of video games — but have yet to find a bill that could make it to President TrumpDonald John TrumpGOP senators balk at lengthy impeachment trial Warren goes local in race to build 2020 movement 2020 Democrats make play for veterans' votes MORE’s desk and win his signature.

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The House passed universal background check legislation in February, but the measures prompted a veto threat from the White House and have not been taken up by the GOP-controlled Senate. The House Judiciary Committee is planning to vote next week on a slate of bills meant to respond to the August shootings. One of the measures would ban high-capacity magazines.

But most of the focus this fall will be on what bills, if any, can pass the Senate and get Trump’s support.

Sens. Chris MurphyChristopher (Chris) Scott MurphyOvernight Defense: Trump, Erdogan confirm White House meeting | Public impeachment hearings set for next week | Top defense appropriator retiring Fairness, tradition, and the Constitution demand the 'whistleblower' step forward Senate Democrat: Colleague was working on fantasy football trade instead of listening to Schumer MORE (D-Conn.), Pat ToomeyPatrick (Pat) Joseph ToomeyNSA improperly collected US phone records in October, new documents show Overnight Defense: Pick for South Korean envoy splits with Trump on nuclear threat | McCain blasts move to suspend Korean military exercises | White House defends Trump salute of North Korean general WH backpedals on Trump's 'due process' remark on guns MORE (R-Pa.) and Joe ManchinJoseph (Joe) ManchinFormer coal exec Don Blankenship launches third-party presidential bid Centrist Democrats seize on state election wins to rail against Warren's agenda Overnight Energy: Senate eyes nixing 'forever chemicals' fix from defense bill | Former Obama EPA chief named CEO of green group | Senate reviews Interior, FERC nominees criticized on ethics MORE (D-W.Va.) are leading talks with the White House to try to find a deal on expanding background checks. Murphy told The Hill he expects to know by the time the Senate returns on Sept. 9 if they’ll be able to get an agreement.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnellAddison (Mitch) Mitchell McConnellGOP senators balk at lengthy impeachment trial Graham: Senate trial 'must expose the whistleblower' Graham says Schiff should be a witness in Trump impeachment trial MORE (R-Ky.), meanwhile, has tapped three GOP chairmen — Sens. Lindsey GrahamLindsey Olin GrahamGOP senators balk at lengthy impeachment trial Graham: Senate trial 'must expose the whistleblower' Graham says Schiff should be a witness in Trump impeachment trial MORE (S.C.), Roger WickerRoger Frederick WickerMicrosoft embraces California law, shaking up privacy debate Trump circuit court nominee in jeopardy amid GOP opposition Pay America's Coast Guard MORE (Miss.) and Lamar AlexanderAndrew (Lamar) Lamar AlexanderPelosi aide hopeful White House will support drug-pricing bill despite criticism Overnight Energy: BLM staff face choice of relocation or resignation as agency moves | Trump says he's 'very much into climate' | EPA rule would expand limits on scientific studies Juan Williams: Republicans flee Trump MORE (Tenn.) — to brainstorm possible legislative responses. Several Republicans, including Graham, are talking up “red flag” laws, which allow law enforcement to temporarily block certain individuals from buying or owning a gun.

Government funding 

Congress has until Oct. 1 to fund the government or punt the fight into fiscal 2020 with a short-term continuing resolution that would temporarily extend current spending levels. 

That gives lawmakers just 13 working days to avoid a second funding lapse for the year, after the record-long 35-day partial shutdown that ended on Jan. 25. 

The path to funding the government for the next fiscal year without needing a continuing resolution is nearly impossible. Though the House has passed 10 of its 12 annual funding bills, the Senate didn’t pass any as they waited for congressional leaders and Trump to strike a two-year budget deal.

The Senate Appropriations Committee is expected to start voting on legislation on Sept. 12, and Senate Republicans are hopeful they can clear a sizable portion of government funding measures this month by combining spending bills for the Pentagon and for the departments of Labor, Education, and Health and Human Services, and potentially energy and water development funding as well.

But even if the Senate is able to pass legislation before Oct. 1, they would still need to work out a broader agreement with the House.

House Majority Leader Steny HoyerSteny Hamilton Hoyer Hoyer calls GOP efforts to out whistleblower 'despicable' Live coverage: House holds first public impeachment hearing Congress hunts for path out of spending stalemate MORE (D-Md.) told reporters that while a continuing resolution could be inevitable, it would be “short-term” and “no more than 60 days,” setting up another funding fight, possibly in early December.

Impeachment 

Impeaching Trump isn’t on the House agenda for the fall, but the debate within the chamber’s Democratic caucus is likely to loom over the relationship between Capitol Hill and Trump.

House Judiciary Committee Chairman Jerrold NadlerJerrold (Jerry) Lewis NadlerHouse to vote on bill to ensure citizenship for children of overseas service members As impeachment goes public, forget 'conventional wisdom' What this 'impeachment' is really about — and it's not the Constitution MORE (D-N.Y.) has set the stage for a new round of fights this fall with Trump that includes issuing a wave of subpoenas for former administration and campaign officials to testify before Congress. Democrats hope the testimony could help build support for impeachment.

Speaker Nancy PelosiNancy PelosiOvernight Health Care: Trump officials making changes to drug pricing proposal | House panel advances flavored e-cig ban | Senators press FDA tobacco chief on vaping ban Speaker Pelosi, it's time to throw American innovators a lifeline Why Americans must tune in to the Trump impeachment hearings MORE (D-Calif.) has come under fire from progressives who view her incremental strategy as too cautious. In a conference call last month, Pelosi told House Democrats that “the public isn’t there on impeachment.”

“Give me the leverage I need to make sure that we’re ready and it is as strong as it can be,” Pelosi told Democrats during the call.

Democratic lawmakers have tried to walk a fine line on impeachment, despite pressure from outside groups. Though more than 130 House Democrats say they back impeachment in some form, only 20 are on the record saying outright that they believe Trump should be impeached.

Trade 

Republicans are making “NAFTA 2.0” — Trump’s trade deal with Mexico and Canada — a top priority this fall.

Senate Finance Committee Chairman Chuck GrassleyCharles (Chuck) Ernest GrassleySpeaker Pelosi, it's time to throw American innovators a lifeline Barr: Inspector general's report on alleged FISA abuses 'imminent' Pelosi aide hopeful White House will support drug-pricing bill despite criticism MORE (R-Iowa) wrote in an op-ed published Thursday that he is “engaged in ongoing discussions with my congressional colleagues, as well as President Trump and his administration regarding steps forward.”

Congress previously agreed to fast-track any trade deals. But Pelosi could easily try to change that — similar to her move against a George W. Bush trade deal with Colombia in 2008 — if the Trump administration tries to play hardball. 

Senate Minority Leader Charles SchumerCharles (Chuck) Ellis SchumerOvernight Health Care: Trump officials making changes to drug pricing proposal | House panel advances flavored e-cig ban | Senators press FDA tobacco chief on vaping ban Chad Wolf becomes acting DHS secretary Schumer blocks drug pricing measure during Senate fight, seeking larger action MORE (D-N.Y.) told reporters last month that there isn’t a “deadline” for a vote but acknowledged it could get wrapped up in 2020 politics if delayed for too long.

“The closer we get to the next election, the harder it is. Speaker Pelosi and I are united ... and we believe that you need strong and enforceable labor protections in this bill, as well as environmental protections,” he said. “If that doesn't happen, there won't be a bill, plain and simple."

Surveillance 

Congress will need to tackle an end-of-the-year surveillance fight, with three provisions in the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act set to expire in mid-December.

The sunset provisions include a controversial records program, known as Section 215, that gathered metadata on domestic text messages and phone calls. 

The Wall Street Journal reported earlier this year that the National Security Agency is recommending an end to the program. But the administration is requesting Congress permanently reauthorize it as well as two other provisions — one authorizing “roving” wiretaps and the other on lone wolf surveillance authority.

“These provisions provide the [intelligence community] with key national security authorities, and we look forward to working with the Congress on their permanent reauthorization,” then-Director of National Intelligence Dan CoatsDaniel (Dan) Ray CoatsThis week: Democrats churn toward next phase of impeachment fight 281 lobbyists have worked in Trump administration: report Former intelligence chief Coats rejoins law firm MORE wrote in a letter to top members of the Senate Judiciary and Intelligence committees last month before he stepped down.

Saudi relations 

Senators are expected to force a vote this month on a resolution related to arms sales and U.S. security assistance to Saudi Arabia — a growing flashpoint on Capitol Hill in the wake of Washington Post contributor Jamal Khashoggi’s death last year at the Saudi Consulate in Istanbul.

The resolution, introduced earlier this year by Murphy and Sen. Todd YoungTodd Christopher YoungOvernight Defense: Trump hosts Erdoğan at White House | Says Turkish leader has 'great relationship with the Kurds' | Highlights from first public impeachment hearing Overnight Defense: Protests at Trump's NYC Veterans Day speech | House Dems release Pentagon official's deposition transcript | Lawmakers ask Trump to rescind Erdogan invite Former AG Sessions enters Alabama Senate race MORE (R-Ind.), would first let Congress vote to ask the State Department for human rights information on Saudi Arabia. Once the State Department turns over their report, senators could then vote to limit or nix security assistance, including arms sales.

An aide confirmed last week that a vote on the Murphy-Young resolution is expected in September.

The vote on the resolution would follow Congress’s attempt to block Trump’s arms deal with Saudi Arabia. The Senate was unable to override the president’s veto.

Defense 

Congress needs to finalize a mammoth defense policy bill, viewed as must-pass legislation that has successfully made it through Congress for almost 60 consecutive years.

The House and Senate passed their separate versions of the National Defense Authorization Act before the August recess. Lawmakers are optimistic they can get the policy bill across the finish line, but with Democrats in control of the House and Republicans the Senate, there are significant policy differences between the two bills. 

The House measure would block emergency arms sales to Saudi Arabia, repeal the 2002 authorization for the use of military force and prevent Trump from using Pentagon funds for a border wall — three provisions that were not included in the Senate bill.