Susan Walsh, File, Associated Press
WASHINGTON — Congress returns Monday from a two-week spring recess with gun control and immigration high on the Senate's agenda.
Senators could start debating Democratic-written gun legislation before week's end. But leaders also might decide to give negotiators more time to seek a deal on expanding background checks for firearms buyers.
Passing the expanded background checks would be viewed as a victory for gun control advocates after Democratic leaders made it clear that supporters were nowhere close to getting a majority of votes in favor of reinstituting an assault weapons ban.
Both measures have been a priority for President Barack Obama since the Dec. 14 shooting at an elementary school in Newtown, Conn.
The National Rifle Association opposes both the assault weapons ban and the expanded background checks
Short of unanimous support in their own party, Democratic senators have been unable to strike a deal with Republicans for the votes they would need to push background check legislation through the chamber. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., might delay debate to give bargainers more time, underscoring how crucial the proposal is to the gun control drive.
"It's the most pivotal piece" of Democrats' gun legislation, said Dan Gross, president of the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence.
Also high on Congress' agenda is immigration, where a pivotal moment is approaching.
Bipartisan groups in the House and Senate are expected to present legislation as early as this week aimed at securing the U.S. border, fixing legal immigration and granting legal status to millions who are in the United States illegally. That will open months of debate on the politically combustible issue, with votes by the Senate Judiciary Committee expected later this month.
The House is looking at a busy, if more low-profile agenda in the coming weeks.
In its first week back, the House will consider a bill that would prevent the National Labor Relations Board from issuing rules until a dispute over administration appointees is resolved.
Among the bills that could see action in later weeks is a measure requiring the Treasury to pay principle and interest on debt held by the public if the nation's borrowing limit is reached but not extended.
Other measures would prioritize pediatric research to assist children with autism and give workers greater flexibility to choose paid time off instead of overtime pay.
Lawmakers will devote much time to the 2014 budget proposal that Obama plans to release on Wednesday. It calls for both new tax increases, which Republicans oppose, and smaller annual increases in Social Security and other government benefit programs, over the objections of many of the president's fellow Democrats.
Even with a background check deal, Senate debate on gun legislation may begin at a slow crawl with some conservatives promising delays and forced procedural votes. There's a strong chance the first votes won't occur until at least mid-April.
Until Democrats come out with the final shape of their background check measure, gun control advocates nervously are tracking the private negotiations, worried their allies might cut a deal that goes too far.
"We want a vote on the issues, we don't want them watered down so they're unrecognizable," said Josh Horwitz, executive director of the Coalition to Stop Gun Violence. "If they can't vote for it, let the American people judge them on that. Don't let a dumbed-down bill be the outcome of this."
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