A new U.S. immigration law at one time looked like the main thing Congress could get done this year. Syria is crippling its chances.
The debates over U.S. military involvement in Syria and federal government spending are crowding an already-packed congressional calendar, leaving little time or energy for revising the nation’s immigration laws, changing the tax code, passing a voting rights bill or stabilizing a money-losing U.S. Postal Service. Congress returns today from a five-week break.
“Everything else is on the back burner,” said Representative Tom Cole of Oklahoma, a member of Republican House Speaker John Boehner’s leadership team.
Representative Mario Diaz-Balart, a Florida Republican working on an immigration policy revision, said there was a 5 percent chance an immigration bill would pass by year’s end. He said he was optimistic because in previous years the chances were zero.
If Congress doesn’t pass immigration legislation this year, it becomes more difficult in 2014 as lawmakers focus on their re-election campaigns, Diaz-Balart said.
“Running out of time is a real issue,” Diaz-Balart, a House Appropriations Committee member, said in an interview. “Nothing is impossible but it gets a heck of a lot more difficult if we don’t get it done this year.”
Time is short, even for the must-do fiscal items and the Syria vote. Lawmakers have three weeks until the government shuts down without a spending plan and less than two months to raise the debt limit or risk a U.S. default.
First up is Syria, with a vote in the Senate planned this week. The House will consider legislation this week to extend current spending levels for the new fiscal year starting Oct. 1.
Days when both chambers are working in the next two months are limited. The House, scheduled to work just 10 weeks for the rest of year, has a five-day break starting Sept. 23. The Senate is in session until an Oct. 14-18 break.
President Barack Obama asked Congress for a “prompt” vote on authorization for strikes, which the White House says would deter and degrade Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s ability to use chemical weapons.
The U.S. blamed Assad for an attack that killed more than 1,400 people, including women and children. The Syrian government denies using chemical weapons, saying elements of the opposition were responsible.
In the House, 26 members publicly support military action and 202 are opposed or leaning against the resolution as of Sept. 8, with 205 undeclared. In the Senate, where 60 votes are needed, 22 members favor the measure, 26 are opposed and 52 are undeclared.
Many lawmakers will attend their first classified briefings today and Obama will deliver an address to the nation on Syria at 9 p.m. tomorrow.
That’s pushing the timetable back on revamping immigration policy, one of Obama’s legislative goals this session. The Senate passed its immigration bill in June while House leaders worked during their break to find consensus in a reluctant Republican majority.
The House hasn’t proposed legislation to change U.S. immigration policy and is working on a piecemeal approach. The Republican National Committee recommended that the party reach out to minority voters after its presidential candidate, Mitt Romney, won just 27 percent of the Hispanic vote in 2012.
An immigration revision’s biggest hurdle might be that it doesn’t have a timetable to force lawmakers into action. A Republican leadership aide, speaking on condition of anonymity, pointed to the RNC report and suggested the only deadline is the 2016 presidential election.
Money is the other top priority starting this week.
In 2011, lawmakers fought for months over raising the nation’s debt limit. Stock investors were affected, with the benchmark Standard & Poor’s 500 Index falling 16.8 percent between July 22, when talks on a broad deal faltered, and Aug. 8, the first trading day after Standard & Poor’s downgraded the U.S. credit rating citing the partisan gridlock.
Credit markets weren’t rattled by the 2011 standoff, as yields on 10-year Treasury notes declined to 2.61 percent on Aug. 2, 2011, from 3.18 percent the previous July 1, and continued to fall to 1.88 percent at year-end.
Still, fiscal deadlines push lawmakers to act.
“Votes have a way of forcing politicians to take a position and give up the wiggle room that is the bread and butter of politics,” said Tom Perriello, a former Democratic House member from Virginia. He is now president of the Center for American Progress Action Fund, a Washington research group founded by former aides to President Bill Clinton. “It’s easier to be on both sides of an issue.”
A record 83 percent of Americans disapprove of the job Congress was doing, according to an NBC News poll released July 24. The survey of 1,000 adults had a margin of error of 3.1 percentage points.
Fifty-seven percent of respondents said they would vote to replace every single member of Congress, including their own, if they could. That was the highest in at least three years, according to the poll results.
“The American people are concerned about two main things: gridlock and doing important things,” Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, a Nevada Democrat, told reporters before lawmakers started their recess on Aug. 2. “We have to overcome the gridlock of the Republicans and pass some important bills.”
Republicans view the divide differently.
They see a Democratic president refusing to negotiate on a debt ceiling, though he voted against raising the limit when he was a U.S. senator in 2006. At the time Obama said “raising America’s debt limit is a sign of leadership failure.”
A pair of Tea Party Republicans, Utah Senator Mike Lee and Representative Mark Meadows of North Carolina, have gathered signatures from lawmakers who back defunding the president’s health-care law in return for passing a short-term spending bill. They’ve gained support from about-one third of the House and Senate Republicans, not enough to force the issue.
Instead, Republicans will claim victory with a short-term spending resolution that maintains discretionary levels at $988 billion. If lawmakers can keep the government running, that would set up negotiations over the debt limit. Republicans see some leverage with across-the-board spending cuts, known as sequestration, that began taking effect in March.
The spending reductions were set to be so intolerable that lawmakers of both parties would compromise on spending to avert $1.2 trillion in cuts over nine years. Instead, no accord was reached and the reductions began. As much as $85 billion will be withheld for the fiscal year that ends Sept. 30, forcing curtailed services and payroll cuts.
“There’s a variety of things we could do that would allow us to both address at least part of the sequesters, which the president and Democrats in the Senate very much want to do,” Cole said in an interview.
On the debt limit, Republicans will seek to define their price for agreeing to an increase, said Jonathan Traub, a managing principal at Deloitte Tax LLP in Washington.
“It can’t be so big that it can’t pass,” he said, citing calls for repealing the 2010 health-care law. “But it can’t be so small that it’s meaningless.”
Common ground might include expanded means-testing for Medicare and trimming Social Security’s cost-of-living adjustments, which Obama included in his budget proposal. Obama’s plan canceled the spending cuts and included $580 billion in revenue increases.
There’s been little sign of negotiations since Congress left Washington.
“Let me reiterate what our position is, and it is unequivocal,” White House press secretary Jay Carney told reporters Aug. 26. “We will not negotiate with Republicans in Congress over Congress’s responsibility to pay the bills that Congress has racked up, period.”