WASHINGTON — Congress' September agenda, already destined to be tense and dramatic, got worse while lawmakers were away this summer. Now they end their five-week recess by plunging into an emotional debate over whether to launch missile strikes against Syria.
That will leave them even less time to meet looming deadlines on budget problems, the big issue that's been building for months. And then, just maybe, they will turn to immigration, the once fiercely debated topic that somehow moved to Washington's back burner.
No member of Congress is in a tighter spot than House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio. He risks seeing most of his Republican colleagues vote against him on three major issues, just as they did earlier on a hurricane relief bill and the "fiscal cliff" budget showdown.
Boehner supports President Barack Obama's proposal to fire missiles into Syria as punishment for the gassing of hundreds of civilians. GOP rank-and-file opposition, however, is running strong, especially in the House.
On the budget front, Boehner says he wants no government shutdown or default on the debt. Those scenarios conceivably could result in a few weeks from partisan impasses over spending and the need to raise the ceiling on how much the government can borrow.
Some conservative Republicans want to shut down the government if that's what it takes to block the "Obamacare" health program. The fiscal year ends Sept. 30, and government agencies will start shutting down if some type of budget bill isn't enacted by then.
Meanwhile, leaders of both parties continue to make irreconcilable demands on how to raise the federal debt ceiling this fall. Unless it rises, the government will start defaulting on financial obligations, rattling world markets.
Finally, Boehner has signaled that he wants far-reaching changes to immigration laws. That puts him in sync with many national GOP leaders who say the party must improve its weak standing among Hispanic voters. But it puts him at odds with many House Republicans who adamantly oppose a Senate-passed bill, which would provide a pathway to citizenship for millions of immigrants living here illegally.
The House is now scheduled to take another recess the week of Sept. 23. That gives it two weeks to decide how to keep funding the government on Oct. 1 and beyond. Many expect a stopgap "continuing resolution," which would keep agencies running for some specified time at current budget levels.
The government's ability to borrow more money will probably end in late October if the debt ceiling isn't raised. While GOP leaders plan House votes on bite-sized pieces of an immigration bill this fall, many lawmakers say momentum for a broad overhaul may die if the issue extends into 2014, an election year.
That's a heavy autumn load by any measure. And now, "obviously the Syria issue is dominating the discussions and legislative agenda," said Rep. Chris Van Hollen of Maryland, the House Budget Committee's top Democrat.
Van Hollen said he thinks Boehner and other top Republicans believe a GOP-driven refusal to raise the debt ceiling would be disastrous for the party. "But as of now," he said, "I don't think they have a clear plan on how to get something through their right-wing caucus."
Rep. Jack Kingston, a Georgia Republican, is hearing lots of resistance to bombing Syria as he campaigns for his state's open Senate seat. He said he's keeping an open mind. But he warned that congressional opposition is setting in fast, and Obama's scheduled Tuesday night national address may be too late.
"A lot of votes are going to have to get reversed to get passage," Kingston said in a phone interview from Georgia.
As for the debt limit increase, he said, it may have to be linked to more popular items, such as a major farm bill. Even then, Kingston said, "it's going to be a massive, fiscal cliff-like drama, as we're getting used to."
The fiscal cliff was the year-end budget scenario in which Boehner and other Republicans had to swallow tax increases for the wealthy in order to avoid higher tax rates for nearly everyone.
Another result of the partisan logjam on spending was the "sequester" cuts, which are chopping billions of dollars from federal budgets. Boehner and others are calling for still deeper cuts.
Kingston warned, however: "People don't realize what impact a second year of sequester will have on the military."
On top of all this, Republicans vow to keep hammering away at "Obamacare," even though there's no realistic way to block it so long as Democrats control the Senate and White House.
More than a third of House Republicans have urged Boehner to trigger a government shutdown rather than fund the implementation of the health care overhaul, enacted in 2010 without a single GOP vote.
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