Full Plate Greets Returning Congress

Congress returns to face a full plate of issues — from military action against Syria to extending food stamps for hungry Americans.After five weeks back home, Congress returns to what shapes up as an issue-busting fall, starting with a charged debate over U.S. military action in Syria. But not far behind are titanic battles over the federal debt ceiling, a Continuing Resolution, immigration reform and the farm bill.

Even before President Obama lobbed his political grenade over military action in Syrian into the halls of Congress, the House and Senate faced a daunting schedule, including an effort by some conservative Republicans to stage a final showdown over funding for Obamacare. 

The political fireworks start Tuesday when Obama addresses the nation to make his case for targeted military strikes in retaliation for the use of chemical weapons by Bashar al-Assad's Syrian regime. It will take every ounce of communication wizardry by Obama to convince a war-weary nation and a skeptical Congress to authorize use of military force. He may have the necessary votes in the Senate, but not in the House, where both liberal Democrats and conservative Republicans may combine to block a majority.

Key votes on Syria are expected this week. It is unclear whether Obama will blast away with or without congressional approval. But it also is possible that new developments could occur. For example, Russia said it would push Syria to turn over control of its chemical weapons to international authorities.

One positive from the divisiveness over Syria is that House GOP leaders have soured on the idea of a contentious fight over a Continuing Resolution, at least right now while the nation's attention is diverted. This could lead to a short-term extension of federal spending authority until later in the fall when Republican strategists believe they will have more political leverage.

Even though the House and Senate Appropriations committees have acted on nearly all spending measures, the Senate hasn't passed any of them and the House has only passed four. That could lead to an omnibus appropriations measure or measures to catch up. 

U.S. Treasury officials predict statutory borrowing authority will top out in Mid-October. Republicans want to use this as leverage to force additional discretionary spending cuts, entitlement program reforms and defunding of Obamacare. Obama says, unlike 2011 when negotiations led to "unthinkable" sequestration, he won't deal. That could set up a scenario of a government shutdown.

Optimists hope that can be averted with a debt ceiling package containing some long-term spending cuts and adjustments to across-the-board sequestration budget cuts. More pessimistic observers think there will be a lot of political machinations before this mush of issues is settled.

One hopeful sign is an emerging bipartisan agreement on a measure to address Medicare doctor reimbursement, which has kicked around in Congress for a decade with a series of small fixes, some lasting only a month or so. 

The Senate overwhelmingly approved this spring a water resources development bill, but so far the House hasn't introduced the bill it will consider. Some House members oppose giving the U.S. Army Corps Engineers too much decision-making authority over projects. House leaders have promised action this fall.

The Senate also has passed its version of comprehensive immigration reform, while the House has passed five bills dealing with border security and citizenship verification. At some point, House and Senate leaders are expected to confer on some form of compromise.

Farm legislation was pulled from the House floor amid controversy over major cuts in food stamps. The House has passed a version of the farm bill without a nutrition title, but has taken a lot of flack. House members may now try to hold separate votes on the agriculture and nutrition sections of the bill.

That's a lot to do and in the relatively few days that Congress has scheduled to be in the Capitol this fall.