WASHINGTON — Nine days.
After a five-week recess, the U.S. House and Senate return to Washington this week to face a mountain of leftover issues and one all-important new one: Whether to authorize a military strike against Syria, at the request of President Obama.
In traditional fashion, lawmakers in the House have left themselves only nine working days to debate and vote on a Syrian resolution before considering a new federal farm bill, a new federal budget, whether to raise the debt ceiling and whether or not to continue the forced budget cuts known as sequestration. All of that must be done by Sept. 30, the end of the fiscal year and the expiration date for the farm bill.
Can it all get done? Eastern Iowa’s congressmen are skeptical, complaining that the Republican-led House in particular has been irresponsible in taking such a long recess as well as scheduling another weeklong break at the end of September.
“It didn’t have to be this way,” Rep. Dave Loebsack, D-Iowa, said. “We didn’t have to leave so early and create this huge crush of legislation. … I’m hopeful we can get something finished on the farm bill by Sept. 30, but I’m not confident of that.”
Syria will dominate Congress’s attention at first. Loebsack is a member of the House Armed Services Committee, which will convene Tuesday to decide whether to follow the lead of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee that voted 10-7 on Wednesday for a military strike resolution. The resolution sets a 60-day expiration date for any action, with an option for an additional 30 days. It also prohibits the use of U.S. ground troops against Syria.
Obama has requested authorization for a strike in retaliation for Syria’s use of chemical weapons Aug. 21 in a Damascus suburb. He plans a prime-time national TV address Tuesday night to lay out the case to Americans.
Because Mondays and Fridays are considered travel days for members of Congress, the House and Senate usually work a three-day workweek from Tuesdays through Thursdays. But since the House isn’t even in session the week of Sept. 23, it has only nine working days — the Senate has an additional few days. The crowded calendar will likely be worse in the House, too, because it has not even begun debating the issue of Syria as the Senate has.
Last year, the House loan out of time to debate a new, five-year version of the farm bill, and simply continued the existing programs. That angered many farm bill proponents, particularly because it continued the controversial system of direct payments to farmers that the Senate Agriculture Committee had painstakingly eliminated. This year, disagreements over the size of the federal food stamp program have threatened the bill — the House already has rejected it once — prompting Boehner to split off the food stamp program from the rest of the farm bill.
Body copy ragged right: Loebsack and Rep. Bruce Braley, D-Iowa, called on Boehner to at least cancel the weeklong recess scheduled for the week of Sept. 23, to allow more time for the House to work through its to-do list. After several weeks of town hall meetings about the farm bill, Braley said another continuation of the existing bill is unacceptable to Iowans because it would continue direct payments. He noted that House members already have had five weeks of time back in their districts.
“If the speaker wants to lead, he should keep us in Washington and let us get these bills done right,” Braley said. “I don’t think there’s strong support in farm country for another short-term extension of the farm bill that contains programs that the overwhelming number of Iowans don’t want and would continue to waste federal dollars. … Direct payments are no longer necessary. That’s the message I’ve been getting.”
In the Senate, senior Agriculture Committee member Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, put the blame squarely on House Republicans for the situation Congress is facing.
He said Boehner, Cantor and other GOP leaders have shown a refusal to compromise, blocking progress on must-do legislation. The Senate, meanwhile, has held successful, bipartisan votes on the farm bill, immigration reform and the budget.
Body copy ragged right: Harkin said it is particularly worrisome that House Republicans may refuse to raise the debt ceiling, jeopardizing the country’s fiscal health.
“In order for Congress to accomplish its ‘to-do’ list, House Republican leadership must come together and recognize that they have to compromise in a bipartisan manner,” Harkin said. “This fall is going to require responsible leadership in both parties, especially to keep the government from shutting down and with respect to fiscal matters.”