If it seems like Groundhog Day on Capitol Hill, well, it kind of is. After a languorous five-week vacation, Congress is finally back in session, and facing a massive to-do list. With only 11 working days until the end of the fiscal year, lawmakers are surely feeling a sense of urgency, as they must take on a number of crucial issues, from passing a budget to the Iran nuclear deal, all with the clock ticking and emotions running high. Some Republicans are threatening to shut down the government over funding for Planned Parenthood. And complicating everything is a highly polarized presidential election and Pope Francis’ big visit to the U.S.
So what exactly is on the docket? Here's everything you need to know:
Spending: Congress has until Sept. 30 to pass a measure to fund the federal government. If no agreement can be reached and if lawmakers can’t pass a temporary spending plan, we might once again be looking at a government shutdown.
Obama has said he won’t green light a budget agreement unless a plan is reached to lift domestic spending caps put in place in 2011. While GOPers have said they’d be willing to add an additional $38 billion in defense spending, there has been no sign that Republicans would sign off on extra money Democrats want in domestic spending. White House spokesman Josh Earnest said earlier this week that the president will “not sign into law a budget bill that will lock in sequester levels of spending.”
The most likely outcome: lawmakers back a short-term continuing resolution—which would push the budget battle to December.
Planned Parenthood: Some conservatives want to use the budget to try and defund Planned Parenthood, which has come under criticism following the release of controversial, secretly-recorded videos about fetal tissue donation.
Republican presidential candidate Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas drafted a letter to Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell asking him to not schedule a vote or consider any legislation that gives federal dollars to Planned Parenthood. Cruz, of course, spearheaded the 2013 shutdown over defunding Obamacare. Meanwhile, 28 GOP lawmakers are promising to do everything they can to defund Planned Parenthood, even if it means shutting down the government. McConnell has said, however, that as long as Obama is president any attempt to strip Planned Parenthood of funding is likely to fail as the Senate doesn’t have the 60 votes necessary to overcome a Democratic filibuster.
Still, a stand-off about the issue increases the chances of a government shutdown.
Iran: A heated debate is expected as Congress will take up the controversial Iran nuclear deal, hammered out between Iran, the U.S. and other world powers. Under the agreement, the Islamic Republic would curb its nuclear program in exchange for billions of dollars in relief from economic sanctions.
Congress is expected to vote on a “resolution of disapproval”. If passed, it would ban Obama from waiving or suspending sanctions Congress had put in place against Iran.
Practically, however, it looks like the Iran deal will stand, with 41 Senate Democrats having announced they will back the deal—enough votes to block the Senate from passing a GOP-backed resolution to knock it down. Still, GOPers are launching a last-ditch attempt to criticize the agreement, seemingly as an exercise in political theater rather than trying to sway the outcome of the pending vote in Congress. Republican presidential candidates Cruz and Donald Trump, for example, headlined a rally against the accord on Wednesday in Washington. Sen. Lindsey Graham, who is also running for the nation’s highest office, said on Tuesday that no matter how Congress votes, he’ll fight to impose additional sanctions against Iran and will push to block funding for International Atomic Energy Inspections until details of any side agreements are released.
The pope: As lawmakers attempt to take action on these big issues, Pope Francis’ speech to a joint session of Congress could serve as a distraction – especially if he takes up controversial issues like climate change and income inequality.
What’s on tap for next month: October will be very busy too. Democratic presidential frontrunner Hillary Clinton is scheduled to testify before the House Select Committee on Benghazi on Oct. 22. Congress will also have until Oct. 29 to extend funding for highways and other federal transportation projects. Lawmakers are also expected to take up a cybersecurity bill, aimed at encouraging businesses to share information on hacker attacks.