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Congress Returns to Do the Bare Minimum

Congress gets back to work Monday after a two-week vacation, and it’s looking like lawmakers will do what they do best: the bare minimum.

Forget immigration, a tax overhaul, stiffer gun checks. They’re all DOA.

Raising the minimum wage or restoring lost unemployment benefits? Not going to happen. Forcing government approval of the Keystone XL pipeline? Veto bait.

Tulips bloom in front of the Capitol in Washington. Congress gets back to work Monday, April 28, after a two-week vacation, and it’s looking like lawmakers will do what they do best: the bare minimum. (AP Photo/J. David Ake)

The only things likely to become law in a Congress bitterly divided between House Republicans and the Democratic-led Senate are those that simply have to pass, such as a measure to avoid a government shutdown.

That’s a short, short list.

It gets even shorter if you leave off things that can wait until a postelection lame-duck session.

Atop the list is a short-term spending bill to keep the government running past the Oct. 1 start of the new budget year. Votes on the bill aren’t needed until September.

After stumbling into a politically costly partial government shutdown last fall, Republicans won’t let it happen again, especially with an election just around the corner. This year’s measure should be no problem.

Much more difficult, however, is the second main item of must-do business: finding more money for the Highway Trust Fund to keep road and bridge construction projects afloat. The fund is running critically low on cash. The administration says that could mean a slowdown in construction projects this summer and fall when lawmakers are back home asking voters to return them to Washington for another term. The current highway bill expires at the end of September.

“The number of (must-do) items is small,” said GOP lobbyist Hazen Marshall of the Nickles Group. “But the degree of difficulty, particularly for the highway bill, is very high.”

Top lawmakers and the administration all say they want to pass a multiyear highway and transit funding bill. Most Capitol Hill watchers think a temporary extension of funding is far more likely. That’s still complicated.

Lawmakers will have to agree on perhaps $10 billion to $15 billion in funding to cover expected trust fund shortfalls. Optimally, Congress would act before its August vacation.

Passing those two bills is probably all that has to happen before Election Day. Congress has taken care of must-do legislation to increase the debt limit and fix Medicare’s flawed payment formula.

So what will Congress do for the next few months? Not much.

There will be efforts to get the troubled appropriations process back on track in the aftermath of last year’s shutdown and modest follow-up budget bargain.

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., has promised the head of the Senate Appropriations Committee, Sen. Barbara Mikulski, D-Md., a few weeks of floor time after last year’s failure to pass a single appropriations bill through the Senate.

The House will try to pass as many bills of the 12 spending bills as it can, but measures funding implementation of the Affordable Care Act, the Internal Revenue Service and the Environmental Protection Agency are candidates to bog down.

In the Senate, Democrats scrambling to retain control of the chamber will stage votes to raise the minimum wage and help the middle class with rising costs for college and child care. Those are issues designed to appeal to voters in the midterm election.

But there also will be a series of Senate debates on lower-profile legislation such as bills by Sens. Rob Portman, R-Ohio, and Jeanne Shaheen, D-N.H. to promote energy efficiency, and legislation by Sens. Roy Blunt, R-Mo., and Sherrod Brown, D-Ohio, to encourage public-private partnerships to boost innovation in manufacturing.

Liberals such as Sen. Pat Leahy, D-Vt., and tea partyers such as Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, both want to end lengthy mandatory minimum sentences for nonviolent drug offenders.

In the GOP-controlled House, additional votes to repeal parts of President Barack Obama’s health law are assured. Majority Leader Eric Cantor announced Friday that the House will soon pass legislation to boost charter schools.

The House has passed legislation aimed at forcing the administration to approve construction of the Keystone XL pipeline running from Canada to Texas, and bills to ease environmental regulations that GOP lawmakers say destroy jobs. Driving-season legislation aimed at gasoline prices is in the works, and conservative policy provisions are likely to be added onto spending bills.

GOP House leaders are in the early stages of developing legislation to replace the health law, but there’s no guarantee it ever will be completed or see a vote. The piecemeal approach they’ve promised to overhauling immigration policy seems to be languishing.

Must-do items are few and far between.

Legislation to renew tax breaks collectively known as “extenders” qualifies in most people’s minds, but can wait until the session after the November elections.

The leaders of the House and Senate Armed Services committees, both of whom are retiring at the end of the term, will make sure to keep intact the five-decade streak of successful enactment of the annual defense policy measure.

Another must-do item is renewing a federal program that backstops the market for private terrorism insurance. The program, created in the aftermath of the Sept. 11 attacks, expires at the end of the year. Its renewal is eagerly sought by the insurance industry and large commercial interests like real estate developers and hotel chains.

There doesn’t seem to be much controversy in renewing the program, which has been done twice before, but it’s still an item that can wait for the lame-duck session.

Lastly, there’s bipartisan desire in both the House and Senate to wrap up negotiations on a multibillion-dollar measure authorizing water projects such as expanding the Port of Savannah in Georgia, and easing flood risks along the Red River in North Dakota and Minnesota. The measure has easily passed both House and Senate.

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