A Few ‘Must Dos,' Lots of ‘Maybes'on Senate's Short List

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By Nancy Ognanovich

June 2 — The Senate is set to return for a six-week summer work period that lawmakers on both sides of the aisle intend to use to address a few looming crises and score more points with voters before they leave again July 15 for political conventions and the campaign trail.

Topping Majority Leader Mitch McConnell's (R-Ky.) short must-do list when lawmakers return to work on June 6 will be action on President Barack Obama's request for money to address the threat posed by the Zika virus as well as a separate plan to help Puerto Rico deal with its debt crisis. Also demanding lawmakers' attention will be some type of fix to ensure continued funding for the nation's aviation system during their seven-week recess starting in mid-July.

Action on those key items is seen as critical to plans McConnell made with House Speaker Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) to avoid messy controversies on the eve of the Republican National Convention and position Republicans as the party that governs going into the November election. McConnell's strategy to also take up back-to-back defense bills and tackle veterans legislation are seen as opportunities to appeal to core Republican constituencies. In particular, floor debates on the latter are seen as providing vulnerable incumbents with chances to gain voters' attention.

McConnell also wants to bring up more appropriations bills in the little more than 20 work days that remain before the Senate shuts down until September, Republican leadership aides said. But his plan to return to “regular order” and pass all 12 by the break increasingly appears in doubt, and other lawmakers instead are urging him to use valuable floor time on items ranging from an omnibus veterans bill to sentencing revamp legislation. Many more items appear likely to remain on hold, however, including the nomination of Merrick Garland, chief judge of the District of Columbia Circuit, to serve on the U.S. Supreme Court.

Defense Becomes Election Battlefield

Key numbers are driving much of McConnell's agenda, particularly the fact that this year, 24 of the 34 seats in play are controlled by Republicans. Democrats need to gain five seats—or four if they retain the presidency—to retake the Senate.

The initial battlefield for staking out positions will be the back-to-back defense bills that McConnell announced before the Memorial Day break that he planned to bring up in June. A full-blown debate on defense policy is expected to begin shortly, when lawmakers begin bringing up amendments to the $575 billion Department of Defense authorization bill (S. 2943).


Both sides are gearing up for a battle over Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman John McCain's (R-Ariz.) plan to add $18 billion in Overseas Contingency Operations funds to the bill in violation of last year's bipartisan budget plan. The same fight is expected when the Senate moves on to the DOD appropriations bill (S. 3000) later in the month.

Beyond money, both sides want to use the two huge bills to debate a host of other items, from Obama's policies on Cuba and Iran to sexual assault in the military and draft registration for women. Presumptive Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump's stance on Muslim immigrants and other issues may also be the subject of debate.

“Anything Donald Trump has talked about is fair game,” a Democratic leadership aide said in discussing amendment strategy.

Trump Lands on Agenda

Those bills will dominate the floor while McConnell waits for the House to sign off on a bill to help Puerto Rico deal with $72 billion in debt. A recently unveiled House compromise (H.R. 4900) won support from members of both parties, including conservatives who said they were satisfied it provides no bailout for the territory.

Senate Democrats are less enthusiastic about the bill's provisions cutting the minimum wage in Puerto Rico, but Treasury Secretary Jacob J. Lew urged support for the bill. Action by July 1 is said essential for Puerto Rico to avoid $2 billion in debt payments.

McConnell also will be waiting for negotiators to hammer out a final version of a Zika supplemental that would be taken up later in the work period. Obama sought $1.8 billion in funds but lawmakers currently are trying to reconcile a $622 million House plan (H.R. 5243) with a $1.1 billion Senate version (H.R. 2577). The Senate's Zika funds were attached to the Military Construction and Veterans Affairs appropriations bill.

Also pending is a decision on how to ensure funding for Federal Aviation Administration programs when a current extension covering the agency expires July 15. The Senate passed an 18-month bill (H.R. 636) bill this spring, but the House hasn't taken up the controversial plan (H.R. 4441) that the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee is pushing to turn air traffic control over to a private, nonprofit corporation. If the two sides can't reach a compromise, lawmakers will have to decide whether to pass another extension and, if so, for how long.

Yet other lawmakers also are clamoring to bring up pet bills, including Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Charles Grassley (R-Iowa), who, like McCain, has found himself in a closer re-election race than expected. Grassley, who has taken heat for helping block Garland's nomination, wants to bring up a bipartisan plan (S. 2123) to revamp federal sentencing rules. Sen. Johnny Isakson (R-Ga.), also up for re-election, is pushing to have a floor debate on an omnibus bill (S. 2981) to overhaul operations at the Veterans Administration.

Aides are expressing more certainty over the chances for the Senate to give a final sign-off to the Comprehensive Addiction and Recovery Act (S. 524) that has been the subject of House-Senate negotiations. The bill, which tackle opioid abuse, is a top priority of Sens. Rob Portman (R-Ohio) and Kelly Ayotte (R-N.H.), two of the chamber's most vulnerable Republicans.

But aides said McConnell is still working on a strategy to move a conference agreement on a bill (H.R. 2576) to overhaul the Toxic Substance Control Act. Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) recently blocked Senate Environment and Public Works Committee Chairman James Inhofe (R-Okla.) from bringing the measure up for a vote.

To contact the reporter on this story: Nancy Ognanovich in Washington at nognanov@bna.com

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Heather Rothman at hrothman@bna.com