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Congress unlikely to get much done before November

House and Senate members return to Washington on Sept. 10

WASHINGTON — With a few possible exceptions, Iowans would be wise not to expect much from Congress when they return to work next week.

House and Senate members return to Washington on Sept. 10, after a five-week recess and both parties’ political conventions. Congress usually takes the month of August off for a summer recess, but its return this year was delayed by the conventions. And starting in October, both chambers will adjourn again for a month of campaigning before the November elections. By most measures, only 13 working days remain on the congressional schedule before November.

A deal on a continuing budget resolution, struck between the House, Senate and White House just before congressmen left Washington at the end of July is likely to be the only piece of major legislation that the two chambers will conclude. By law, the measure known on Capitol Hill as the “CR” must be approved by Congress and signed by the president by the end of the fiscal year on Sept. 30. Democrats and Republicans agreed to keep discretionary federal programs such as education, transportation and defense at current levels — an annual rate of $1.05 trillion — through March 2013. Such a timeline prevents the budget issue from becoming enmeshed in this fall’s presidential and congressional elections. Sen. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, chairs a Senate appropriations subcommittee that funds health, education and labor initiatives.

The measure most important to Iowa — the farm bill — is much more uncertain. Such large differences remain between the House and Senate versions that it is highly unlikely they could be reconciled in a conference committee process before Congress adjourns again in October. If the five-year federal bill is not reauthorized by Sept. 30, programs will either expire or revert to the arcane 1949 version.

The only good news is the possibility that members have heard an outcry during the August recess from their constituents about the need for drought relief, since farmers especially in the Midwest have been suffering through the worst drought in decades. The House and Senate could not agree on the issue at the end of July.

Jennifer Duffy, a senior editor at The Cook Political Report in Washington and a veteran Senate analyst, said House Republicans seem intractable in their demands.

“To me, it’s a House issue on whether or not they can get a bill done and then turn around and get it through conference,” Duffy told The Gazette. “They’ve got a lot of work to do. Honestly, I don’t anticipate (Congress) will do a lot ...(The possibility of) drought relief is probably a little bit better, because I’m just going to imagine that members have been getting an earful.”

The chances of any other serious legislation getting done before October — such as addressing the expiration of the 2001 and 2003 Bush tax cuts — are practically nil, Duffy said. President Barack Obama has vowed not to renew the cuts when they expire at the end of the year, but Republicans have likened that to a tax increase and have championed the cuts as the best way to grow the economy.

“Is there a number less than zero?” Duffy said of the chances of a resolution to the tax cut issue.

In the Senate, the first order of business in September concerns Iowa — Harkin will try to shepherd through the judicial confirmation of Stephanie Rose to the District Court bench in the state’s Southern District. Sen. Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, the top Republican on the Judiciary Committee, also supports Rose’s nomination. Also during the first week of the reconvened Senate, Harkin plans to spend time on the chamber floor criticizing budget proposals made last year by GOP vice presidential nominee Paul Ryan.

Eastern Iowa’s congressional delegation continues to press for a renewed farm bill, but acknowledges that chances are fading. Rep. Dave Loebsack, D-Iowa, went so far to say that “Congress is broken.” In July, Loebsack had called on the House to stay in session to hash out the farm bill.

“When Congress returns from its undeserved five-week vacation, it has a mountain of critical, must-pass legislation in front of it,” Loebsack told The Gazette. “It is unlikely much — or any — of this work will get done. Congress is broken. I know it, Iowans know it, and the American people know it. After having done nothing on these issues for the last year, these upcoming 13 days of work are not nearly the amount of time needed to fix the pressing issues facing our nation. Congress needs to get its act together, find bipartisan, common sense solutions and it needs to get to work.”

Rep. Bruce Braley, D-Iowa, said nonrenewal of the farm bill is not an option. He also called for passage of the continuing budget resolution, renewal of the Violence Against Women Act, reform of the nation’s postal system and legislation to produce jobs. He agreed with others that the tax cut issue is unlikely before the November elections, but said tax credits for the wind industry are a must since they support about 7,000 jobs in Iowa.

“Producers battered by this summer’s drought are counting on the farm bill to help them through this tough time. The alternative, reverting to the antiquated 1949 Farm Bill, would be disastrous for Iowa agriculture, family farmers, and American consumers,” Braley told The Gazette. “I don’t believe in excuses, just results. Let’s get to work.”

But Grassley joined those who were pessimistic about Congress’s ability to get much done, given the realities of the calendar. He suggested the budget resolution, the farm bill, a cybersecurity bill and a veterans jobs bill are possibilities, as well as possible disaster relief for the states that were struck by Hurricane Isaac.“There’s a lot more to get done by the end of the year, but beyond the must-pass items, there’s not going to be much time for anything else in September and we’ll have to return after the election to complete our business,” he said.

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