Congress Heats Up For Summer


Congress’s twin missions — advancing policy and scoring political points — will be on full display this summer.

The House will spend the next two months tackling spending bills and defense policy, possibly even some bite-size immigration measures and changes to education policy. The Senate will continue on the farm bill and likely take up immigration reform. There’s a looming deadline on student loan rates and a desire not to let things drag out into the fall when talk turns to the budget and the debt ceiling.

But scandals — the Internal Revenue Service, Benghazi, media subpoenas and the fate of Attorney General Eric Holder — still dominate the headlines and agenda.

Top Republicans are privately considering taking advantage of the news that the IRS was targeting conservative groups by drawing up a bill to curtail the organization’s reach. One idea being floated is to reduce the agency’s role with the Affordable Care Act.

Republicans see little downside in beating the agency when it’s down — especially if they could also target Obamacare at the same time.

House Oversight and Government Reform Committee Chairman Darrell Issa (R-Calif.) is at the center of the Benghazi and IRS probes, and his panel will conduct more than a dozen interviews with IRS officials in an effort to put the scandal closer to the White House.

“This is a problem that was in all likelihood right out of Washington headquarters,” Issa said on CNN’s “State of the Union” on Sunday. “We’re getting to proving it.”

The oversight committee will do its part keeping the IRS in the news with a hearing this week on excessive spending at the agency. The House Appropriations Committee will also hear from new Acting IRS Commissioner Danny Werfel on Monday, and conservative groups the IRS targeted will testify before the Ways and Means Committee on Tuesday.

Issa’s panel will also conduct a private interview of former Ambassador Thomas Pickering regarding his investigation into the attack that killed four Americans in Benghazi last year. Issa has promised to release the transcript of this interview to the public and says he’s still waiting to see if the State Department will comply with another round of subpoenas.

And Judiciary Committee Chairman Bob Goodlatte (R-Va.) is investigating Attorney General Eric Holder for his comments under oath regarding the administration accessing the phone records of Fox News reporter James Rosen.

Whether it’s legislation, investigations or rhetoric, this summer holds outsize political implications for Republicans and Democrats. There’s the potential to break the recent cycle of failure to pass legislation and show an ability to work across the aisle; at the same time, failing to prevent a hike in student loan rates or rewrite the nation’s immigration laws could be embarrassing for both parties.

Republicans also face the prospect of going too far, too fast in their investigations of the Obama administration and risk looking like the GOP of the mid-1990s, when the impeachment issue cost them seats in the 1998 midterms.

Unlike recent fights over spending and the debt ceiling, most of the issues coming up this summer won’t be fueled by cataclysmic deadlines; there’s no government shutdown looming or fiscal cliff to drive over.

But that won’t be the case after the August recess, as Congress faces the need to renew spending bills by Sept. 30. A debt ceiling increase will likely be needed sometime this fall, and there’s also a recognition that controversial measures will be harder to pass in 2014 as lawmakers face primary challenges and then November elections.

On the summer agenda for the House: several appropriations bills, defense and intelligence authorization measures, energy legislation and a bill to reform No Child Left Behind, according to a Friday memo from Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-Va.).

Of course, this isn’t as easy as simply declaring a desire to move legislation. Passing bills is a muscle Congress hasn’t flexed in recent years. Thus far in 2013, only 11 measures have been passed and signed by President Barack Obama. Compare that with 16 over the same period in 2011, 24 in 2009 and 28 in 2007.

There is one deadline that Congress has to wrestle with: July 1, when student loan rates will double from 3.4 percent to 6.8 percent.

Congress last year approved a one-year extension of the lower rate, but all sides say they want a long-term solution instead of a temporary patch. The House last month passed a bill that would tie the student loan rate to 10-year Treasury notes. GOP leaders say their bill mirrors President Barack Obama’s plans, but the White House has threatened to veto that measure.

The Senate is also working a version, which, unlike the House bill places a cap on student loan rates.

Complicating the matter, there is palpable concern in House leadership that Senate Republicans might vote for the Democrats’ proposal — putting increased pressure on them when the two chambers try to strike a compromise.

The Senate will also be busy on two other major measures that will test the House GOP leadership: agriculture and immigration.

The bipartisan farm bill could be the first sent over, testing the level conservative Republicans are willing to fight about food stamps and farm subsidies. And the Senate is gearing up to try to move the immigration bill, which still doesn’t have the needed votes to leave the chamber but boasts bipartisan support trying to move it over to the House side.

Boehner and House Republican leaders will begin to feel increased pressure to move some sort of rewrite of the nation’s immigration laws. A bipartisan group of House members is expected to release its bill in the next two weeks after settling on how to address heath care coverage for illegal immigrants.

GOP sources say they will also move bite-size immigration bills from Goodlatte’s Judiciary Committee to the House floor in the coming weeks. Even if a deal isn’t struck in the House, the small bills could be used to negotiate a larger agreement with any Senate-passed legislation.