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Texans in Congress Have A Few Weeks to Tackle Zika, Other Big Issues

Funding to combat the Zika virus. Restructuring Puerto Rico's debt. And, oh yeah, keeping the government running. Congress has a short period to tackle some big issues. In nearly every battle, Texans are playing major roles.

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WASHINGTON — Election Day may be five months away, but Texans in Congress have only about half that time to get anything done.

Members have about 10 weeks to debate and act on measures that affect all walks of American life. By mid-July, a scheduled summer recess, re-election campaigns and the summer conventions will soon eat into the remaining legislative calendar. 

The myriad issues facing Congress include the burgeoning threat of the Zika virus, a historic trade deal, whether to help Puerto Rico restructure its daunting debt and whether the Senate should give President Obama's Supreme Court nominee a hearing. In nearly every battle, Texans are playing major roles. 

Granted, there is a chance that Congress could resolve some of these debates in the weeks after the elections. Some on the Hill predict even the most controversial issues could blow open once the pressures of campaigning are alleviated and the identity of the next president is clear. But time is running out.

Here are the policy debates looming largest in the nation's capital and the Texans at the center of the legislative fights:   

Combating the Zika Virus

What is it? The Zika virus is an alarming disease transmitted sexually or through mosquito bites. While unheard of by most Americans only months ago, it has been linked to microcephaly, a birth defect that causes babies to have abnormally small heads and improper brain development. Earlier this year, amid Zika outbreaks in South and Central America, the Obama administration requested almost $2 billion from Congress to battle the virus. Republicans resisted, arguing funds tagged for fighting Ebola ought to be diverted to this cause. Democrats countered that Republicans are playing legislative games amid a potential health crisis. For now, the House and the Senate are haggling out an agreement.

Key Texas players: U.S. Sen. John Cornyn sponsored legislation on the issue that ultimately did not pass. Additionally, members of the House Appropriations Committee, including U.S. Rep. Kay Granger, R-Fort Worth, who is involved in House and Senate negotiations, and U.S Rep. Henry Cuellar, D-Laredo, are working to move funding.

When is it expected to come up? The expectation is that mosquito season will do more to move this legislation than anyone in Washington. In Texas, public health experts predict the state's most impoverished regions, such as the Rio Grande Valley in South Texas, could be hardest hit. 

And the headlines could get uglier: The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention issued a Zika advisory to Americans traveling to Brazil, which in August will host the 2016 Olympic Games. The pressure is on for Congress to find a solution sooner rather than later.


The Next Batch of Spending Bills

What are they? Budgeting is the single most important issue ahead of Congress. Every year, the hardest legislation to move through Congress is inevitably the spending bills, which cover everything from the military to food stamps. Sticking points over spending led to a 2013 shutdown largely orchestrated by U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz, and the issue continues to prompt perennial scrambles. This year's deadline is Sept. 30.

Key Texas players: A long-simmering fight over budgetary procedure could put U.S. House Rules Committee Chairman Pete Sessions, R-Dallas, at the center of the conflict. One of the biggest complaints hard-line conservatives had against former U.S. House Speaker John Boehner was that he and other congressional leaders secured spending deals with minimal rank-and-file input. His successor, Rep. Paul Ryan of Wisconsin, promised a more “open” process that would allow for more floor amendments. In recent weeks, Democrats took advantage of that by attaching unrelated amendments to massive, must-pass bills. This has led to many Republicans to call for a stricter posture from Sessions' Rules Committee.

Amid the chaos, the U.S. House Appropriations Committee — which includes Texas U.S. Reps. John Culberson of Houston, John Carter of Round Rock, Granger and Cuellar — appears to be losing its influence in deciding how money is spent.

When is it expected to come up? Appropriations hearings will continue in June, and the annual fiscal deadline is at the end of September. Often in the fall, Congress passes a temporary measure continuing funding at the previous year’s levels — either for a short term or long term. In 2015, Congress passed a major spending bill with a series of unrelated pieces of legislation tacked on, which can often create an opening for surprise legislation. Last year, Republicans accepted a series of Democratic budget demands in exchange for lifting a ban on crude oil exports, pleasing many in the Houston delegation and elsewhere.

The betting money is on Congress passing a short-term funding bill in the fall and considering a larger bill between the November elections and Christmas.


Puerto Rico's Debt 

What is it? A bill is headed to the House floor that will restructure Puerto Rico’s $70 billion worth of debt and implement an oversight board to keep tabs of the American territory’s finances. Some Democrats are concerned about the federal government exerting too much control over the commonwealth. But there is big money at stake for investors who hold Puerto Rican debt — many of whom, the New York Times reports, are also major political donors. Over the spring, a group that does not disclose its donors called the Center for Individual Freedom aired ads arguing that allowing Puerto Rico to declare bankruptcy creates a moral hazard: “High-spending states like Illinois will also want to declare bankruptcy.”

Key Texas players: Obama administration officials are hoping to push the measure across the finish line in part through bolstering support within the Congressional Hispanic Caucus, including U.S. Reps. Joaquin Castro, D-San Antonio; Cuellar, Rubén Hinojosa, D-Edinburg; and Filemon Vela, D-Brownsville. Until the specifics of the legislation shake out, caucus members from Texas are mostly taking a wait-and-see approach.

When is it expected to come up? June. 


Replacing Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia

What is it? Senate Republicans have refused to hold hearings for President Obama’s nominee to replace the late Justice Antonin Scalia, U.S. Appeals Court Judge Merrick Garland, arguing that the next president ought to have that choice. 

Key Texas players: Should hearings occur before Obama's second term ends in January, Cornyn, a former judge himself, would play a prominent role in grilling Garland as a member of the Senate Judiciary Committee.

When is it expected to come up? Democrats hope the Republican hard line will ease after the election, after voters have determined Obama’s successor. Garland is relatively mild ideologically and older — meaning he could prove to be a less-threatening prospect to the far right than the uncertainty over whom Hillary Clinton or Donald Trump would nominate.


Trans-Pacific Partnership 

What is it? President Obama’s administration negotiated the massive trade deal with 11 Pacific Rim countries last year. It is currently in a holding pattern in Congress amid criticism from both the left and the right over various provisions. 

Key Texas players: As chairman of the tax-writing House Ways and Means Committee, Kevin Brady, R-The Woodlands, is the lead player in the House in pushing through the largest trade deal in U.S. history. Brady recently described the current deal as “not perfect” but also said it “would grow our economy, increase net exports and create jobs.”

When is it expected to come up? The trade deal is stalled in Congress and is creating vicious divides in some Democratic House primaries. As a result, few predict the issue will come to a vote until after the election.


Ozone Bill 

What is it? House Republicans aim to delay the Obama administration's new ozone pollution standards with a bill they say will reduce pollution while giving local governments flexibility amid murky guidance from the Environmental Protection Agency. Environmentally minded Democrats argue the bill is an attack on the Clean Air Act and on the overall goal of reducing pollution.

Key Texas players: U.S. Rep. Pete Olson, R-Sugar Land, sponsored the bill. Ozone levels are a major issue in Olson's home district in suburban Houston, but several other Texas Republicans and a Democrat, Cuellar, are also pushing the legislation. Nevertheless, the legislation faces stiff opposition.

When is it expected to come up? June.

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Politics Joe Barton John Cornyn John Culberson Kevin Brady Pete Olson Pete Sessions