US Congress faces long to-do list

FILE - In this Sept. 16, 2013, file photo, the U.S. Capitol at sunset in Washington. (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite, File)
FILE - In this Sept. 16, 2013, file photo, the U.S. Capitol at sunset in Washington. (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite, File)

WASHINGTON (AP) — A gridlocked Congress failed to do the big things: overhauling the U.S. immigration system, reforming the loophole-cluttered tax code and stiffening background checks on gun buyers. Now it’s time to see whether it can just do the basics, like keeping the government running.

With just two weeks before lawmakers’ sacrosanct August break, progress is decidedly mixed on several must-pass items due to Washington partisanship, heightened by the November elections when control of Congress is at stake and the Obama administration’s conflicting signals to Congress. Lawmakers are trying to ease long wait times for military veterans seeking health care and deal with a humanitarian crisis of some 57,000 unaccompanied immigrant children who have entered the U.S. along the Southern border since last year.

Republicans eager to avert politically disastrous partial government shutdown may try to move a short-term spending measure to keep the government open until after the November elections. The legislation could come as early as next week, or be put off until September, when the House of Representatives is scheduled to be in session just 12 days. Either way, Republican conservatives who sparked last year’s government shutdown over implementing Obama’s signature health care law don’t want to pursue a similar tactic close to the elections, especially with a legitimate shot at winning a Senate majority.

Looming legislation would keep the government operating beyond the start of the fiscal year on Oct. 1; the Republican-held House has completed seven of the 12 spending bills while the Democrat-controlled Senate has done none. A once-promising effort to revive the appropriations process in the Senate appears to have derailed in a test of wills between top Senate leaders over the rights of Republicans to offer amendments to legislation.

It’s looking increasingly possible, even likely, that the warring parties won’t come together to pass President Barack Obama’s request for $3.7 billion to help deal with children flooding into the U.S. from Central America. The main roadblock is whether to also change a 2008 law that guarantees these minors, many of whom are fleeing violence, a hearing before an immigration judge.

“I doubt it,” said Republican Sen. John McCain, who helped craft a comprehensive Senate immigration bill last year that remains stalled in the House of Representatives.

Congressional aides in both parties say the politics over changing the 2008 law to make it easier for the Border Patrol to immediately send back unaccompanied minors to Guatemala, El Salvador and Honduras has all but sunk Obama’s request. The administration has sent contradictory signals on whether it would be open to toughening the law — a non-negotiable demand of Republicans. Congressional Democrats are balking at using the emergency funding bill to advance changes to the 2008 statute.

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid accused Republicans on Monday of “resorting to ransoming children to get their way.”

Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham, who also worked on the immigration bill, said he couldn’t envision a bill emerging from the House. “No Republican is going to vote for billions of dollars without changes to the law,” Graham said.

And in what seemed unthinkable just a few weeks ago, aides say it’s looking like negotiations over House- and Senate-passed veterans’ health legislation have bogged down after the administration upped the ante with a demand for almost $18 billion to hire 10,000 doctors, nurses and other health care aides, and lease new facilities to create additional capacity over the coming three years. That request, on top of about $30 billion to permit veterans facing long waits to seek treatment outside the Veterans Affairs system, has unnerved Republican negotiators.

The Democratic and Republican aides spoke on condition of anonymity in order to more candidly assess the prospects of various measures.

Conservatives are targeting the Export-Import Bank, which helps finance exports of U.S. companies such as aircraft maker Boeing. Establishment Republicans support extending the Ex-Im Bank’s authority past a Sept. 30 deadline. Conservative tea party forces are opposed, and the internecine Republican struggle may play out in September as a backdrop to a short-term spending measure to prevent a government shutdown.

 

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