WASHINGTON – A gridlocked Congress failed to do the big things: overhauling the nation's immigration system, reforming the loophole-cluttered tax code and stiffening background checks on gun buyers. Now it's time to see whether it can just do the basics.
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With just two weeks before lawmakers' sacrosanct August break, progress is decidedly mixed on several must-pass items due to Capitol Hill partisanship, heightened by midterm elections and the Obama administration's conflicting signals to Congress. Lawmakers must find about $10 billion to keep highway projects on track through next spring, ease long wait times for veterans seeking health care and deal with a humanitarian crisis of some 57,000 unaccompanied immigrant children who have entered the U.S. along the Southern border since last fall.
Looming large is legislation to keep the government operating beyond the start of the fiscal year on Oct. 1; the House has completed seven of the 12 spending bills while the Senate has done none. A once-promising effort to revive the appropriations process in the Senate appears to have derailed in a test of wills between top Senate leaders over the rights of Republicans to offer amendments to legislation.
"You have to be optimistic and you have to keep on working," House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi said Tuesday. "It's just a stunning thing that no matter what it is, the president is for it, the Republicans are against it."
The California Democrat said congressional critics are not "overstating" the severity of gridlock on Capitol Hill.
It's looking increasingly possible, even likely, that the warring parties won't come together to pass President Barack Obama's request for $3.7 billion to help deal with children flooding into the country from Central America. The main roadblock is whether to also change a 2008 law that guarantees these minors, many of whom are fleeing violence, a hearing before an immigration judge.
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"I doubt it," said Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., who helped craft a comprehensive Senate immigration bill last year that remains stalled in the House.
Congressional aides in both parties say the politics over changing the 2008 law to make it easier for the Border Patrol to immediately send back unaccompanied minors to Guatemala, El Salvador and Honduras has all but sunk Obama's request. The administration has sent contradictory signals on whether it would be open to toughening the law — a non-negotiable demand of Republicans. Congressional Democrats are balking at using the emergency funding bill to advance changes to the 2008 statute.
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., accused Republicans on Monday of "resorting to ransoming children to get their way." Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, said in a statement on Tuesday that the public won't support billions more for the border unless Congress makes policy changes to return migrant kids home faster.
Boehner said Obama's unwillingness to stand up to Democrats jeopardizes "our ability to find common ground and help the kids who are caught in the middle of this crisis."
And in what seemed unthinkable just a few weeks ago, aides say it's looking like negotiations over House- and Senate-passed veterans' health legislation have bogged down after the administration upped the ante with a demand for almost $18 billion to hire 10,000 doctors, nurses and other health care aides, and lease new facilities to create additional capacity over the coming three years. That request, on top of about $30 billion to permit veterans facing long waits to seek treatment outside the Veterans Affairs system, has unnerved GOP negotiators.
Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., chairman of the Senate Veterans Committee, said "it is clear the VA needs more doctors, need more nurses and in many cases they need more space," and it would be a mistake not to deal with the issue in legislation.
The panel's top Republican, North Carolina Sen. Richard Burr, said the nearly $18 billion doesn't have to be part of any agreement worked out with the House, and he remained optimistic that something could be done in two weeks.
Said Sen. Jerry Moran, R-Kan.: "If we can't come together on a veterans' bill, it certainly highlights the problems we've had in getting anything done here. One would think veterans would overcome any of those challenges."
The pressure is on.
"Pass a bill or don't come back from recess," said William A. Thien, the national commander of the Veterans of Foreign Wars.
Things are looking more promising for legislation to "patch" the highway trust fund after an overwhelming House vote last week. Both Republicans and Democrats predict the Senate will end up simply accepting the House measure, which will keep highway and transit money flowing through May 2015.
Republicans eager to avert a politically disastrous partial government shutdown may try to move a short-term spending measure to keep the government open until after the November elections. The legislation could come as early as next week, or be put off until September, when the House is scheduled to be in session just 12 days. Either way, GOP conservatives no longer want a shutdown showdown over implementing Obama's signature health care law close to the midterm elections, especially with a legitimate shot at winning a Senate majority.
Conservatives are, however, targeting the Export-Import Bank, which helps finance exports of U.S. companies such as aircraft maker Boeing. Establishment Republicans support extending the Ex-Im Bank's authority past a Sept. 30 deadline. Tea party forces are opposed, and the internecine GOP struggle may play out in September as a backdrop to a short-term spending measure to prevent a shutdown.
The Senate overwhelmingly passed a bill last week to extend a program that helped stabilize jittery insurance markets in the aftermath of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. But the bill has hit a snag in the House and won't pass until this fall at the earliest.
Pelosi made her remarks Tuesday morning in an interview on MSNBC.