Back from a four-week recess, Congress’ long and arduous to-do list is now longer and more arduous, with hurricane relief funding and the status of nearly 800,000 young, undocumented immigrants added to a hectic legislative schedule.
“The time crunch is severe,” Democratic Senator Jack Reed of Rhode Island told VOA Tuesday.
“We’re going to be mighty busy,” Republican Senator Susan Collins of Maine predicted.
Lawmakers left Washington nearly a month ago, knowing they would have to raise America’s debt ceiling and fund the federal government within weeks of their return. Now they have additional tasks, including approving emergency funding for victims of Hurricane Harvey and responding to President Donald Trump’s decision to end a program that shielded young, undocumented immigrants from deportation and allowed them to work and study in the country.
“There are a lot of priorities and we are going to focus on all of them in the next month,” said Republican Senator John Barrasso of Wyoming. “We have to raise the debt ceiling, at the same time deal with the disasters in Texas and what looks to be coming to Florida [Hurricane Irma]. We have to fund the government. We’re going to get all of that done, but it’s going to take a lot of effort.”
On Tuesday, the Trump administration gave Congress six months to pass legislation addressing the future of recipients of the 2012 Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, or DACA, program. But many lawmakers want a solution far sooner, noting that additional challenges requiring Congress’ attention could arise at any moment.
“Who knows what next month’s topic du jour will be. Is it going to be Kim Jong Un? Is it going to be Irma, Harvey?” said Illinois Democratic Senator Dick Durbin. “Let’s move and do it now. It’s important to make the Dream Act [providing legal status to DACA recipients] the law of the land now.”
House Democratic Whip Steny Hoyer of Maryland agreed.
“If we can deal with DACA in the next 12 days, I frankly think the votes are there,” Hoyer said.
To ease the legislative logjam, there are suggestions of combining must-pass legislative items rather than voting on each one separately. For instance, the White House is urging Congress to include disaster relief funding in the vote to raise the debt ceiling.
Already, some fiscal hawks are pledging opposition, saying a debt hike should be tied to spending reforms, not hurricane relief.
“We have a $20 trillion debt,” Republican Senator Rand Paul of Kentucky said. “Just passing the debt ceiling to be done with it is a big mistake. It’s going to be a lot of spending, no fiscal restraint.”
But the spending cuts Paul seeks are unacceptable to many Democrats, underscoring the political fault lines that could emerge in the days and weeks to come.
Across the political spectrum, lawmakers said bipartisanship will be required for Congress to meet legislative deadlines. Many expressed hope that the horrors inflicted on Texas by Hurricane Harvey would promote a sense of common purpose on Capitol Hill.
“Hurricane Harvey made the point to a lot of people that we can’t shut down the government, that we do have to get resources out,” Reed said. “That has provided some momentum to get things done.”
“The question is, can we come together?” said South Carolina Republican Senator Lindsey Graham. “The answer is, we have no other choice.”
VOA’s Katherine Gypson contributed to this report.