WASHINGTON, D.C. - It's as true for Congress as it is for term papers: There's nothing better than a deadline to get neglected things accomplished.
Lawmakers are set to leave for home next Friday. And it's just about this time every year that politicians, the staff that run their lives and write their bills, and the journalists covering it all start to wonder just how much will Congress accomplish in the traditional spasm that precedes its August vacation?
If you're already thinking some weary version of "the absolute bare minimum," you're likely to fair well in this dismal guessing game. Still, in Washington deadlines matter and politicians care about hitting them, especially when the public is expecting results. Let's take a quick look at the workload.
First, everyone is focused on what to do about the child migrant crisis on the southern border, where tens of thousands of minors have wound up in the hands of U.S. immigration and child welfare officials. There were signs of hope for a quick deal at the beginning of the month when congressional leaders were working hard to provide space for an agreement.
Most of that optimism is gone, at least in terms of a deal before vacation. House Republicans and Senate Democrats both want to give President Barack Obama significantly less than the $3.7 billion he asked for to deal with the border crisis. But the money isn't even the hardest issue.
Clashes over how to handle child asylum seekers and whether or not to make it easier to send kids back to Central America – as well as when to make such a legal change – have sent lawmakers to their partisan corners. Not only that, a growing number of House conservatives are rumbling that they won't vote for any bill that sends more money to Obama. That means Speaker John Boehner is likely to need Democrats to help provide votes. But so many Dems are against changes to the asylum law that it’s led to an impasse.
Still lawmakers want to pass something. Customs and Border Protection says it’s set to run out of money for handling the border crisis in mid-August. Very few lawmakers want to be on the hook for TV images of suffering kids or government officials saying they can't do their jobs because Congress failed again.
House Republicans huddled Friday morning to try and find a solution. None was immediately divined. But several members said one plan is to abandon most of the hard stuff for now and just pass a small amount of money to keep border agencies going and pair that with some narrow policy changes.
Mark one down in your "bare minimum” column.
Lawmakers on both sides of the aisle say they're desperate to reach a deal on reforming the Veterans Administration after reports of thousands of vets unable to get promised care at VA facilities. Bipartisan talks have been going on, but money is a huge issue. The sides also disagree on how to expand VA's capacity to see a big surge in new patients, and other issues, too.
Late this week, talks between Senate Dems and House Republicans melted down. It culminated in in-front-of-the-camera finger pointing and a few staged events. Play-acting is a part of the political process but it's almost never a good sign this late in the process. An aide to Senate Veterans Affairs Chairman Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., told me Thursday his boss was still optimistic about reaching a deal before the August break. Almost no one else is.
Finally, there's the issue of keeping highway, bridge and road projects from halting. Like the border agency, the Highway Trust Fund is set to go insolvent sometime in August and that would leave some states having to suspend their road maintenance programs and tens of thousands of jobs that go with them.
A long-term deal to fund highways and other infrastructure was never really possible in this election-year Congress. That would cost around $300 billion over a decade. Instead, the House scraped together about $11 billion in pocket change to keep the trust fund going until May. And they found the money by allowing corporations to underfund their pensions for the next decade.
It's a lousy deal, but by this time next week, the Senate is set to pass it, too, just in time to leave for the August break.
It's likely to be a pretty dismal deadline performance, even by the standards of the 113th Congress. Maybe it's because the real deadline lawmakers are fixated on is November 4th.
Todd Zwillich is Washington correspondent for The Takeaway from Public Radio International and WNYC. He's covered Washington and Capitol Hill for more than 15 years. Follow him on Twitter @toddzwillich.
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