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Congress gets back to work with tight deadlines, big issues ahead

Congress gets back to work with tight deadlines ahead

Lawmakers return to Capitol Hill this week for a whirlwind session that will bring votes on Iran and government funding — amid an unwieldy presidential election that threatens to amplify partisan bickering and complicate decision-making.

As they end a monthlong recess, lawmakers will immediately face votes on President Barack Obama's nuclear agreement with Iran and will then have until Sept. 30 to approve a spending bill or risk shutting the government down.

Both of those tasks — along with deadlines to pay for transportation projects and to raise the nation's debt ceiling — are likely to be ensnared in the race for the GOP presidential nomination, which features four senators eager to prove their conservative bona fides.

"There's a lot of hard feelings out there, and the presidential campaign doesn't help," said Sen. Ben Cardin, a Maryland Democrat. "There's a lot of things that need to get done."

Much of the political drama over the Iran agreement evaporated last week when Maryland Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski, a Democrat, announced her support, giving Obama the votes needs to overcome opposition that has come mainly from Republicans. Supporters hope to lock down additional votes to allow the deal to take effect without requiring a presidential veto.

Cardin, the top-ranking Democrat on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, may have complicated that effort on Friday by announcing that he will oppose the pact when it comes to the Senate floor, joining two other Democrats in bucking the president. Cardin, a prominent Jewish Democrat, faces re-election in 2018.

As contentious as the debate over Iran has been, there is far less certainty about government funding for the fiscal year that begins Oct. 1.

Republican leaders have vowed to avoid a repeat of the 16-day shutdown of federal agencies in 2013, but the funding question has been complicated by a controversy over abortion.

Videos showing discussions about the sale of fetal tissue by employees of Planned Parenthood have energized conservatives and hardened positions over any spending bill. Clinics of the organization, which receives federal funding, provide health services that can include abortions.

Stan Collender, executive vice president of the public relations firm Qorvis MSLGROUP and a longtime budget observer, believes there's a 60 percent chance of a government shutdown.

"The problem is in the Senate you've got four Republican senators running for president, all of whom have said they can't and won't vote for any additional funding for Planned Parenthood," Collender said. "It's hard to see one reason why the presidential elections make things easier and not worse."

The looming battle over federal funding has unnerved economists who point to the current fragility of global markets. The apprehension over a shutdown is especially acute in Maryland, where 300,000 residents work for the federal government and roughly 27 percent of the economy is tied to federal spending.

"Congress has no choice but to ensure that our government avoids another shutdown," said Democratic Rep. Elijah E. Cummings of Baltimore. "It is time to provide certainty to federal agencies, their employees, and the American people by passing a responsible spending bill without delay or gamesmanship."

J. David Cox Sr., national president of the American Federation of Government Employees, said his members are also concerned about another stopgap spending measure that averts a shutdown but keeps funding flat and simply moves the deadline back by a few months.

"Who knows what this Congress is going to do?" Cox said. "They have to step up and do what they were elected to do: Pass appropriations and fund the government."

But Republicans have won concessions from Obama by holding up must-pass bills in the past — and many conservatives have not ruled out doing so again in the coming weeks.

"I am confident that Congress will pass a fiscally responsible budget and once again cut down on much of the reckless spending that we have seen come out of Washington in the last several years," Rep. Andy Harris, the state's only Republican in Congress, said in a statement.

Efforts to advance a six-year highway bill fell apart in the days before Congress left for its summer recess, forcing lawmakers to approve a measure extending funding for three months instead. That authorization will run out Oct. 29, and it's not clear whether progress has been made to address underlying issues that have stymied Congress on transportation funding for years.

Such funding is important to Maryland. By one measure, the amount of federal highway money available to Maryland has fallen nearly 9 percent since 2008, to $587 million last year. Nearly a quarter of the state's highways and major roads require resurfacing or reconstruction, a greater share than the national average.

With little political appetite to raise the federal gas tax, lawmakers have cast around for a way to pay for billions of dollars in projects. One idea, first proposed by Rep. John Delaney of Montgomery County, calls for allowing companies to repatriate a portion of their overseas profits at a lower tax rate and using a portion of that money for infrastructure.

"After working on this issue for three years, I do think that there is a deal to be done this fall that combines international tax reform and rebuilding roads and bridges," Delaney, a Democrat, said in a statement. "Infrastructure isn't political, it's concrete."

Once lawmakers address the transportation issue, they will turn to the debt ceiling, which led Congress to the brink of an economic crisis in 2011. The nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office predicted last month that the Treasury Department will need new borrowing authority sometime in November or December.

By then the presidential election, which features 17 declared Republican candidates and five Democrats, will be in full swing. The Iowa caucuses are tentatively set for Feb. 1.

"This fall will come down to whether we can responsibly govern or if we let extremists set the agenda," Delaney said. "Deadlines can be powerful and we have a number this fall that can't be ignored any longer."

john.fritze@baltsun.com

twitter.com/jfritze

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