WASHINGTON – Pressure is on Congress to act in the next two weeks on several problems, from keeping highway projects on track and easing wait time for veterans seeking health care to the humanitarian crisis at the U.S.-Mexico border.
"Pass a bill or don't come back from recess," William A. Thien, the national commander of the Veterans of Foreign Wars, warned lawmakers pondering the Department of Veterans Affairs legislation. "America's veterans are tired of waiting — on secret waiting lists at the VA and on their elected officials to do their jobs."
With the monthlong August recess looming, progress has been decidedly mixed on several must-past items as congressional partisanship — only fiercer in an election year — and the Obama administration's conflicting signals to Capitol Hill complicate prospects for legislation.
Lawmakers have been struggling to find about $10 billion to keep highway projects on track through next spring, produce legislation to speed up health care for veterans and address how to deal with some 57,000 unaccompanied immigrant children who have entered the U.S. along the southern border since last fall.
Things look promising for legislation to "patch" the highway trust fund after an overwhelming House vote last week. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., told reporters on Tuesday that a vote is possible this week, with the Senate widely expected to accept the House measure keeping highway and transit money flowing through May 2015.
Lawmakers remain at an impasse on President Barack Obama's request for emergency funding to deal with an influx of Central American children streaming across the U.S. border.
Senate Democrats circulated legislation on Tuesday to significantly cut Obama's proposal. The legislation also would provide immediate aid to Israel for the Iron Dome missile defense system as well as money needed to fight wildfires in Western states.
Appropriations Committee Chairwoman Barbara Mikulski, D-Md., is scheduled to release the measure on Wednesday.
The legislation cuts Obama's $3.7 billion request for sheltering and processing unaccompanied immigrant children by $1 billion. It includes $225 million for Israel's Iron Dome, designed to intercept short-range rockets and mortars, as Israel battles Hamas militants, and $615 million for wildfires in Western states.
The border proposal puts Democrats on a collision course with Republicans who insist on coupling the additional money with policy changes to a 2008 law that guarantees the unaccompanied minors, many of whom are fleeing violence, a hearing before an immigration judge.
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.
House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, said in a statement on Tuesday that the public won't support billions of dollars 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."
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.
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.
Reid spoke optimistically on Tuesday about getting legislation completed before lawmakers leave Washington.
"It's an emergency situation to take care of some of these people coming home from those two wars," he said.
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.