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 TrumpTrump goes after Cassidy after saying he wouldn't support him for president in 2024 Jan. 6 panel lays out criminal contempt case against Bannon Hillicon Valley — Presented by Xerox — Agencies sound alarm over ransomware targeting agriculture groups 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 MurphyExpats plead with US to deliver COVID-19 vaccines Growing number of Democrats endorse abolishing debt limit altogether Senate approves short-term debt ceiling increase MORE (D-Conn.), Pat ToomeyPatrick (Pat) Joseph ToomeyBlack women look to build upon gains in coming elections Watch live: GOP senators present new infrastructure proposal Sasse rebuked by Nebraska Republican Party over impeachment vote MORE (R-Pa.) and Joe ManchinJoe ManchinOvernight Energy & Environment — Presented by the American Petroleum Institute — Democrats address reports that clean energy program will be axed Overnight Health Care — Presented by Carequest — Colin Powell's death highlights risks for immunocompromised Progressive coalition unveils ad to pressure Manchin on Biden spending plan 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 McConnellOn The Money — Democrats tee up Senate spending battles with GOP The Memo: Powell ended up on losing side of GOP fight Treasury to use extraordinary measures despite debt ceiling hike MORE (R-Ky.), meanwhile, has tapped three GOP chairmen — Sens. Lindsey GrahamLindsey Olin GrahamA pandemic of hyper-hypocrisy is infecting American politics Republicans' mantra should have been 'Stop the Spread' Senators preview bill to stop tech giants from prioritizing their own products MORE (S.C.), Roger WickerRoger Frederick WickerOvernight Defense & National Security — Presented by Raytheon Technologies — Nation mourns Colin Powell Pentagon, State Department square off on Afghanistan accountability White House scrambles to avert supply chain crisis MORE (Miss.) and Lamar AlexanderLamar AlexanderMcConnell gets GOP wake-up call The Hill's Morning Report - Presented by Alibaba - Democrats return to disappointment on immigration Authorities link ex-Tennessee governor to killing of Jimmy Hoffa associate 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 HoyerTechnology 'antitrust' legislation could slow product innovation, hurt the digital economy Hoyer signals House vote on bill to 'remove' debt limit threat Feehery: Build back bipartisan 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 NadlerMore than 200 women, transgender inmates to be transferred from Rikers Island Alabama using COVID funds to build new prisons — is that Biden's vision? Alabama clears plan to use COVID-19 relief funds to build prisons 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 PelosiBiden to take part in CNN town hall in Baltimore Manchin on finishing agenda by Halloween: 'I don't know how that would happen' The Hill's Morning Report - Presented by Uber - Build Back Better items on chopping block 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 GrassleyChuck GrassleyLawmakers pay tribute to Colin Powell Senate GOP signals they'll help bail out Biden's Fed chair Fill the Eastern District of Virginia  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 SchumerChuck SchumerBiden's Supreme Court commission ends not with a bang but a whimper Hispanic organizations call for Latino climate justice in reconciliation Senate to vote next week on Freedom to Vote Act 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 CoatsOvernight Hillicon Valley — Scrutiny over Instagram's impact on teens Former national security officials warn antitrust bills could help China in tech race Cyber preparedness could save America's 'unsinkable aircraft carrier' 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 YoungThe unseen problems in Afghanistan How to fix the semiconductor chip shortage (it's more than manufacturing) Senate Democrats try to defuse GOP budget drama 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.