Congress returns this week for a pivotal work period with multiple deadlines, a busy schedule for an institution that tends to wait until the very last minute to get things done.
House lawmakers will spend the next four legislative days laying the groundwork on crucial pieces of legislation for the rest of the month, negotiating terms and conditions among themselves and with their counterparts across the aisle and Rotunda.
Simultaneously, Speaker Paul D. Ryan, R-Wis., will keep tabs to ensure he keeps promises he made during the run-up to his election as speaker.
The two key deadlines come with their own political and logistical complications.
On Dec. 4, the latest short-term reauthorization of the transportation bill expires.
Democrats and Republicans are eager to prove skeptics wrong and pass a multiyear bill to fund surface transportation programs. The two chambers have assembled a conference committee, but time is short to agree on a conference report before Friday, which will likely lead to at least one more short-term extension. One key sticking point is the inclusion of a provision to reauthorize the lapsed charter of the Export-Import Bank. One week after the highway bill deadline, Congress faces the Dec. 11 expiration of the latest continuing resolution funding the government. The task of moving a year-end omnibus spending bill through the pipeline is made significantly easier by the budget agreement earlier this fall, which increased spending levels beyond the still-in-place sequester budget caps.
Conservatives are still targeting spending, and some Republicans want to extract concessions in exchange for their votes in the form of policy riders. Those riders, whether about clean air standards, Muslim refugees from Syria or a perennial issue such as health care, could trigger a White House veto threat or, perhaps worse, force Republicans to rely on Democrats to push the measure over the finish line. Relying on Democrats is something Ryan has pledged to avoid.
Republicans will likely consider language to defund Planned Parenthood, especially if efforts to target the women’s health organization through the budget reconciliation process fall through in the Senate.
They will likely also call for provisions to halt the flow of Syrian refugees into the United States after the terrorist attacks in Paris. Ryan tried to anticipate these fights in November by holding “listening sessions” with some Appropriations subcommittee chairmen and rank-and-file Republicans, a chance for members to air their grievances and express their preferences while the omnibus was drafted.
There are other legislative agenda items that could come up before Congress heads home for the holidays, although the debate over the highway bill and omnibus might push those into the new year.
Negotiators released their conference report on Monday for rewriting the No Child Left Behind law that sets standards for elementary and secondary schools.
As with the highway bill, House Republicans could revolt if they feel their more conservative version has been diluted during the bicameral talks with the Senate.
Also as with the highway bill, the longer negotiations continue, the more discontent is likely to fester, particularly when members go home to their districts during the holiday recess and get an earful from constituents, egged on by outside advocacy groups.
Congress could always consider an extension of tax breaks for businesses and individuals, but is more likely to punt the issue into 2016 by passing a short-term patch.
Some lawmakers were hopeful they could get a long-term deal by the end of 2015 to revive the nearly 50 tax breaks that expired in 2014.
Ryan wanted an overhaul of the tax code to be his legacy in his previous position as chairman of the Ways and Means Committee, and he might still push for the issue hard as speaker.
Ryan’s successor on the tax-writing panel, Texas Republican Kevin Brady, will have his own ideas and those could dictate how much progress on the so-called tax extenders package gets made before Christmas.
Alan K. Ota contributed to this report.
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