Sarah Michelle Gellar and Jennifer Love Hewitt may be able to tell you what they did last summer.
But what will Congress do this summer?
It will undoubtedly pale in comparison to what lawmakers face in November and December. That’s because we’re well into election season. Few want to tackle the pending struggle to avoid a government shutdown, a potential debt ceiling increase, an alteration of the massive, mandatory spending cut called the “sequester” and re-upping the Bush tax cuts – until after the election. The heaviest lift comes then.
But most revealing about this summer’s Congressional schedule is a triumvirate of issues not even on the official legislative calendar.
House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-VA) sent out a memo late last week to rank-and-file Republicans and key GOP staff. The missive detailed what bills he thought would come to the floor over the next several months. Cantor described the summer program a “busy legislative agenda” that will focus on the annual government spending bills, a measure to reauthorize intelligence programs and a package to curb taxes on medical devices.
With the arrival of the summer driving season, the House will also tackle bills designed to bolster domestic energy production and to diminish regulations which could inhibit drilling or the use of energy-rich land.
In July, the House is slated to update the “Lacey Act.” Dating to 1900, the Lacey Act prohibits the sale and use of wildlife and plants which are protected. The Lacey Act re-entered the spotlight after federal agents raided the Gibson Guitar Corporation in Nashville, TN. There are allegations that Gibson trafficked ebony from Madagascar. But there still no resolution to the case. Gibson says the wood the feds seized was legal and from India.
The GOP-controlled House wants to use the Gibson raid as a model of government overreach – particularly when it comes to small businesses. Reps. Marsha Blackburn (R-TN) and Jim Cooper (D-TN) crafted a bill to limit criminal consequences for small businesses.
Cantor also wants to “vote on legislation preventing the largest tax increase in history” which could conceivably kick in come January if Congress doesn’t wrestle with it in the lame duck session.
All of this is typical summer fare for Congress. But what could be most intriguing is what’s NOT in Cantor’s memo. It’s these issues which could spur the most interesting parliamentary moments of the season. And in some cases, the debate will focus on whether the Republican leadership should bring things to the floor or not.
Without question, the best parlor game in Washington this summer centers on when the Supreme Court may issue its opinion on the constitutionality of the Affordable Care Act (ACA). The High Court handed down opinions on Tuesday and won’t do so again until early June. The best money is that the health care decision will come in about a month. But no one really knows. And Republicans face a conundrum on what to do when the Supreme Court renders its verdict.
“We’re going to vote to repeal this thing,” reiterated Cantor in an interview with Rich Edson of FOX Business. “If the Supreme Court doesn’t vote to strike down the entire law this time, yes, I think you’ll see one of the first things we’ll do in response to that decision is to once again make it known that we Republicans are very much in opposition to Obamacare and we know that there’s a better way.”
That’s about the only thing the House GOP is sure of. It’s already voted multiple times to do away with the ACA. But no one knows what happens beyond that. The GOP faces an internal debate about what approach to take if it attempts to “replace” the health care law. Lawmakers aren’t coalescing around any particular approach right now. And it’s tough for Republicans to draft a concrete alternative when they don’t know what the Supreme Court might find unconstitutional about the law – if anything at all.
That’s the next problem. What if the Supreme Court upholds the law, no questions asked? Or what if it just nicks the law a bit? How do House Republicans look if they vote yet again to repeal the law? Such a vote would mark nearly 30 such votes the House has held this Congress to fillet the ACA. There’s concern in Republican ranks that yet another vote makes the House GOP appear as though it’s thumbing its nose at the judicial branch – especially if the High Court rules in favor of the law.
House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) is already tipping the Democrats’ hand if the GOP forges ahead with another repeal vote.
“We believe in judicial review,” said Pelosi Tuesday at the Commonwealth Club in San Francisco. “We did not win the public relations battle on it. But for the constitutionality, it is ironclad.”
Pelosi’s “judicial review” line could indicate Democrats are prepping to portray the GOP as “extreme” and “out of touch” with the functionality of the U.S. government. In other words, Republicans begged for the Supreme Court to hear the health care case. And if it the GOP doesn’t get the result it wants, then it will disregard that opinion and vote to torch the law again anyway.
A senior House leadership aide indicated there wasn’t any conflict between holding another repeal vote, even if the Court upholds the ACA. The aide said that regardless of the constitutionality of the law, Republicans still feel the ACA is just bad policy. So they’ll vote to repeal once again.
Also not on Cantor’s list is a vote on a final version of a major transportation bill. This is the piece of legislation where the GOP is pushing for the inclusion of the Keystone pipeline. The overall bill authorizes and funds major transportation programs for the next several years. But despite overwhelming, bipartisan support in the Senate, the legislation flailed in the House. Conservatives pushed for removing environmental barriers to development. Democrats squawked about safety. And for now, the bill remains stalled in a conference committee where House and Senate members are trying to iron out differences.
A source familiar with the talks says there’s been progress but “not on any major issues.”
Regardless, the current authorization for transportation programs runs out at the end of June. A failure to sign off on those programs could create a legislative flurry at the end of the month. House Speaker John Boehner (R-OH) has tried to lug the transportation package across the finish line since last fall, but to no avail.
Finally, there is the contempt of Congress issue for Attorney General Eric Holder.
Dozens of House Republicans are imploring the GOP leadership to put a contempt of Congress resolution on the floor for Holder over Fast and Furious. Fast and Furious is a Department of Justice gun tracking program which went awry. It’s believed to have resulted in the death of a border patrol agent. The GOP doesn’t believe Holder has provided Congress with the information they requested about the program.
Much like the debate over “replacing” the health care law with something else, there is an intense, internecine squabble among Republicans about how to proceed here. Boehner asserts that he wants “to hold everyone at the Department of Justice and the administration accountable” for Fast and Furious and says that “all options are on the table.” GOP leaders even told the attorney general in a letter that they may have to force the issue unless he is more forthcoming. Yet there appears to be a resistance from the GOP to move ahead with a contempt resolution targeting Holder. And many in Congress believe if the House does forge ahead against Holder, it could be with something less than a full contempt of Congress effort.
The trio of health care reform, the transportation bill and the contempt resolution are major items not listed on Eric Cantor’s summertime “to do” list. All are nettlesome for Republicans. That hints at why they may be absent from the GOP docket. Which means it may come down to not what Congress does this summer. But what it doesn’t do this summer.