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Congress Facing Long To-Do List        07/22 06:39

   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.

   WASHINGTON (AP) --- 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.

   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.

   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.

   "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."

   Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., who also worked on the immigration bill, said 
he couldn't envision a bill emerging from the House. "No Republican is going to 
vote for billions of dollars without changes to the law," Graham said.

   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.

   The Democratic and GOP aides spoke on condition of anonymity in order to 
more candidly assess the prospects of various measures.

   "We've got to start strengthening the VA right now," said Sen. Bernie 
Sanders, I-Vt., chairman of the Senate Veterans Committee. 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."

   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.

   The program is designed to cushion the financial blow to insurance companies 
in the event of another massive attack. Under the program, the federal 
government helps pay damages for attacks that cost more than $100 million. The 
program is scheduled to expire at the end of the year. The Senate voted 93-4 to 
extend it through 2021.

   House leaders tentatively scheduled a vote last week, but the vote was 
delayed and it's unclear when the bill will be revisited. Some House 
Republicans want changes to limit the government's involvement in the insurance 
industry.

   
 


(KA)


 
 
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