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Congress returns to work, faces tight deadline on federal funding

Congress returns to work, faces tight deadline on federal funding
Shown is Sen. Barbara Mikulski. (Patuxent Publishing photo by Francis Gardler)

Lawmakers return to Capitol Hill on Monday amid a backdrop of world crises and a looming showdown over immigration. But they're set to focus most of their effort this month on a more fundamental task: keeping the federal government open.

Fresh off summer recess but paralyzed by partisanship and the upcoming midterm elections, Congress has two weeks to pass legislation to put federal agency spending on autopilot and decide the fate of an obscure, 80-year-old trade program that was uncontroversial until recently.

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The relatively thin agenda could be upended by world events, such as the standoff between Ukraine and its Russia-backed separatists or the conflict with the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria. President Barack Obama is set to outline his strategy on ISIS in an address Wednesday.

And on the domestic front, Obama has signaled he will take unilateral action to change the nation's enforcement of immigration laws after the election — a move that is already stirring passions on both sides of the issue.

But for now, the top job for Congress is to keep the government running after current funding runs out at the end of the month.

Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski, the chairwoman of the Senate Appropriations Committee, said she is focused on the task.

"I'm working on both sides of the aisle … to make sure, No.1, we do not have a government shutdown," the Maryland Democrat said. "And second, that whatever we do, we do no harm."

Mikulski and her Republican counterparts have attempted to move detailed appropriations bills through Congress this year — a practice that would give lawmakers more control over spending. But the effort has been thwarted by squabbles in the Senate over procedural issues, such as whether Republicans should be allowed to offer amendments to bills.

Observers say the current political dynamic favors a quick resolution on a stop-gap bill that keeps the government funded through the end of the year by locking in current spending levels. That likely outcome is being driven in part by the political fallout from last October's 16-day government shutdown.

"The last thing congressional Republicans want to do is remind voters about the last shutdown so close to the election, and that's what will happen if the government shuts down again in October," said Stan Collender, executive vice president of the public relations firm Qorvis MSLGROUP and a veteran budget analyst.

Federal spending bills are particularly important for Maryland, which is home to some 300,000 federal employees and another 250,000 who work for federal contractors. Economists note the slowdown in federal spending has corresponded with an increase in unemployment in the state.

As in past budget debates, some conservatives may attempt to use the must-pass funding bill as leverage to dismantle Obama's polices, particularly the 2010 national health care law. But House Speaker John Boehner and other Republican leaders will likely to try to avoid the kind of standoff that has characterized past negotiations.

Boehner used a recent conference call with his caucus to stress the party has an opportunity this month to "paint a very stark contrast between ourselves and the Democrats who run Washington" — but only, he said, "if we take advantage of it by getting our work done."'

Republicans are within reach of capturing control of the Senate for the first time since 2006. The GOP needs six seats and Democrats are defending strong challenges for at least 10.

In addition to funding, Congress must decide whether to reauthorize the U.S. Export-Import Bank, a New Deal-era institution that facilitated more than $37 billion in exports last year. The bank, which provides loans and credit guarantees, is considered a top priority for many businesses but has been criticized by some conservatives as an anachronism that mostly benefits large corporations.

But it's not likely Republicans will risk taking an election-year stand on a program most Americans have never heard of, and many observers believe lawmakers will pass a short-term extension, saving debate over the bank for another day.

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"We've gained a lot of momentum," said Linda Dempsey, vice president at the National Association of Manufacturers, which is lobbying in favor of the bank's extension.

Republicans had warned that action from the president on immigration could jeopardize passage of the funding bill or the bank's reauthorization. Obama was expected to announce executive orders by the end of the summer but will now hold off until after November.

"I'm going to act because it's the right thing for the country. But it's going to be more sustainable and more effective if the public understands what the facts are on immigration," the president said on NBC's "Meet the Press" on Sunday.

Collender, the budget analyst, said the decision "takes away the last possible reason for the GOP to even threaten a shutdown."

Still, the move angered both immigration advocates — who described the move as a betrayal — and Republicans, who said it was politically motivated.

"The best way to do this is to bring people together and work with them in Congress," Rep. Mike Rogers, a Michigan Republican, said on CNN's "State of the Union." "I think it's very risky for the president — he already has a bit of a credibility crisis — to take this step."

Democrats have countered that Obama is acting only because Congress has failed to do so.

"It's a two-way street," said Democratic Sen. Ben Cardin of Maryland. "Congress has to work with this administration."

Tribune Newspapers Washington bureau contributed to this article.

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