August Recess Leaves Unfinished Business

Lawmakers left spending bills undone as they left Washingon for a five-week summer recess. NPR's congressional reporter Tamara Keith joins guest host Linda Wertheimer to wrap up business on the hill.

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LINDA WERTHEIMER, HOST:

This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. Scott Simon is away. I'm Linda Wertheimer. Members of Congress are back in their home districts this morning at the start of a five-week summer recess. They left town with more of a whimper than a bang. They leave a whole lot of unfinished business. We're joined now by NPR congressional correspondent, Tamara Keith. Welcome.

TAMARA KEITH, BYLINE: Thank you.

WERTHEIMER: Let's start with what the Congress did accomplish. There was student loan legislation. What else?

KEITH: That was it. That was a big thing, and we're expecting a presidential signature on that sometime soon. Other than that, the Senate confirmed a new ATF director, and an ambassador to the U.N.

WERTHEIMER: That's Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms.

KEITH: And Firearms, which had been highly controversial and has taken years to get done, and they've done that. In the House, they passed a lot of message bills in the last week, including a vote just before they left town to partially repeal the President's health care law, known as Obamacare. It was a 40th vote that they've taken to either fully or partially repeal or defund the law.

KEITH: And House Speaker John Boehner says that when they come back, they'll be doing more of that.

WERTHEIMER: Now for what they did not do. This week, the House pulled its transportation spending bill without even voting. And in the Senate, that version of the transportation bill fell on a procedural vote. Where does that leave the budget process?

KEITH: It's been a disaster for many years now and it's not working this year either. There are 12 appropriation bills that in theory have to be passed each year. So far the House has passed four of them. The Senate has passed none. And this is all supposed to happen before September 30th to keep the government funded and open for business.

So they return from recess in September, the House will have just nine working days before a possible government shutdown, yet there's really no pretense that Congress will finish all of these appropriations bills. The more likely outcome is what's called a continuing resolution, sort of a temporary measure to keep things funded for a little while.

WERTHEIMER: Now, the last time they got backed up against the wall like this, they came up with a sequester.

KEITH: The automatic spending cuts that resulted from the last debt ceiling fight, which was two years ago. Well, we're now headed for another debt ceiling fight this fall and the sequester is around and causing some problems on Capitol Hill. I think that this week, the failure of those two transportation bills pointed to a problem with the sequester, which is that folks are having a hard time making these cuts real.

And I think there's a growing belief that they have to do something about the sequester. What is probably going to happen is that that will get wrapped up in the effort to continue to fund the government for the rest of the year and, if I were betting, it would also get wrapped up in the next debt-ceiling fight, which is set to come around November.

WERTHEIMER: Now recess, of course, sounds like it would be fun and games, but members of Congress do actually go back to their districts, so they do have town hall meetings. And in 2009, those meetings marked the rise of the Tea Party and concentrated opposition to the President's health care law. Do you think this recess will be able to gin up any kind of interesting political movement?

KEITH: I think immigration activists are hoping to put pressure on House members to pass some sort of comprehensive immigration reform. The Senate had already done it; the House seems disinterested in doing it. Also, the folks who want to defund Obamacare are hoping to get some momentum behind that push by holding town halls of their own and attending other town halls to really push hard on members to get them to try to threaten the government shutdown if Obamacare isn't defunded.

WERTHEIMER: NPR congressional correspondent, Tamara Keith. Are you going to travel with any of these members of Congress and watch any of this going on?

KEITH: I am. My big plan is to go to Arkansas. There's an exciting senate race shaping up there, and also one of these Obamacare town halls is happening, so I'm hoping to attend that.

WERTHEIMER: Well, thank you very much for joining us today.

KEITH: Thank you.

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