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A body at rest: Congress planning a light schedule for next year

The Washington Post logoThe Washington Post 11/23/2015 Mike DeBonis

Congress building © Jim Bourg Congress building The approaching holidays have many Americans counting the days until they can kick back, relax and celebrate with their families and friends.

For members of Congress, that count is especially short.

Both the House and Senate are away for their customary Thanksgiving recess this week, and the House plans only 12 more days of business this year.

The long trend toward shorter stints in Washington and longer “district work periods” back at home has continued in the 114th Congress, and next year looks to be even more relaxed: Congressional calendars released earlier this month show the Senate plans to spend no more than 143 days legislating next year, with the House planning only 111 days in Washington.

[Time to ground Congress]

That spare schedule reflects the demands of an election year: Unusually early national party conventions mean lawmakers will be taking the second half of July off, without giving up any of their traditional August recess. And October through mid-November is cleared for campaigning ahead of the Nov. 8 general election.

But it also reflects the widespread understanding that Congress just might not have very much to do next year.

Tensions between President Obama and GOP congressional leaders, magnified by the political freight of an election year, means few substantial measures have hope of advancing. And, more important, lawmakers have cleared out — or are in the process of clearing out — the few must-pass bills required to clear deadlines before the next Congress is sworn in.

“There’s a bunch of things that we could do and probably will do, but, at this point, if you look at next year, a lot of the heavy lifting for next year’s been done this year,” said Sen. John Thune (R-S.D.), the Senate Republican Conference chairman.

Perhaps most crucial was the budget deal forged between Obama and outgoing House Speaker John A. Boehner (R-Ohio) before his retirement last month. That accord set spending levels and raised the federal debt limit through 2017 and is expected to greatly ease the process of passing government funding bills through the next election, though sticking points do remain.

[Budget deal could end the fiscal wars until after the 2016 elections]

Both houses are expected to meet other crucial deadlines.

House and Senate conferees are now working to bridge gaps on a bill authorizing six years of transportation projects, and new Speaker Paul D. Ryan (R-Wis.) has convened a internal process to smooth the passage of an omnibus appropriations bill before a possible Dec. 12 shutdown. Another extension of dozens of popular tax breaks is also expected to pass before a year-end deadline, and negotiators reached an accord last week to rewrite the controversial No Child Left Behind education law.

Meanwhile, thorny policy issues appears to be off the table for 2016. Immigration reform proposals remain in a deep freeze, with Republicans fuming over Obama’s 2014 executive orders and Democrats unwilling to entertain any reform bill that does not offer illegal immigrants a path to legal status. Ryan has called Obama “untrustworthy” on the issue and has called a comprehensive reform bill a nonstarter during his presidency.

Obama’s request for a new war-powers authorization to cover the fight against the Islamic State terror organization, made in February, has seemingly faded into political oblivion — despite the terror attacks in Paris and Obama’s decision to redeploy a small number of ground forces in the Middle East. Republicans say Obama already has the authority he needs.

Congressional Republicans find themselves in much the same position as in 2000, and similar to the situation Democrats faced in 2008, having control of both chambers of Congress as the opposition party president winds down his eighth year in office.

Then as now, they must walk a fine line between providing enough of a positive agenda to defend their majorities in Washington, while not getting ahead of the eventual presidential nominee of their own party.

Most likely to move in the coming months are relatively small-bore policy bills: A rewrite of the Toxic Substances Control Act, for instance, is in the Senate’s pipeline, and hopes have risen that the House might finally take action on a mental health reform bill.

And leaders of both parties in both chambers have said they hope to see movement on a criminal justice reform bill that could significantly lighten jail sentences for nonviolent offenders.

[Advocates, lawmakers see momentum for mental-health reform in Congress]

The legislative centerpiece for 2016, however, is likely to be a huge fight over the Trans-Pacific Partnership, the sprawling trade deal that represents a key part of Obama’s economic and foreign policy legacy. Because its passage will likely require Republicans to support a presidential priority in an election year, there is widespread speculation that a final vote could get pushed to a post-election lame-duck session.

Today’s Republicans face a different task than their predecessors 15 years ago, who saw President Bill Clinton maintain his popularity amid one of the strongest periods of economic growth in the country’s history.

Their presidential nominee, George W. Bush, emerged relatively early, and they worked on a modest agenda of tax cuts, increased defense spending and entitlement overhauls — well aware that it would not be signed into law by Clinton but would help frame the presidential race.

In 2008, Democrats had the advantage of having Bush end his tenure as one of the most unpopular presidents ever. The disadvantage was not having a nominee until June as Obama and Clinton waged an epic primary battle.

Reid, then the Senate majority leader, worked with then House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) to craft an agenda that focused on issues that put Republicans on the defensive — unemployment insurance, home heating assistance — as the economy headed into a deep recession.

Whatever remaining plans existed were ripped up in the fall when the financial markets collapsed, leading to Bush and congressional Democrats to work hand-in-hand to bail out Wall Street weeks before Election Day — a reminder that circumstances can easily derail expectations.

While Republican leaders have framed next year’s light schedule as a reflection of a productive 2016, Democrats see it a sign of promises unfulfilled.

Sen. Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) pointed to pledges from Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), the Senate majority leader, that he would set a more robust legislative pace: “He hasn’t seemed to figure out what he wants to put on the floor , so we don’t do much except for a lot of show votes.”

Senators of both parties expressed frustrations with the 2016 calendar.

Sen. Chris Murphy (D-Conn.) called it “embarrassingly thin” and “a recognition of the fact that Ryan and McConnell have no plans to legislate” next year. “We’ve been crying out for the Senate to take up immigration, to take up an [Authorization for Use of Military Force], to take up tax reform,” he said. “There’s no takers in Republican leadership.”

But Sen. Mike Rounds (R-S.D.) said Democrats shared plenty of blame for the gridlock — making reference to their filibusters of spending bills this year.

“I understand the guys who are up for election, how they want to have the opportunity to get back and campaign, I get that,” he said. “But it would be really nice if we had a series of deadlines that we would self-impose to get our work done in a timely fashion.”

Paul Kane contributed to this report.

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