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Congress is Back, But Don't Expect Much

The U.S. Congress returns Tuesday for four weeks of legislating, but with November elections on the horizon expect modest results — maybe a stopgap funding bill and some new federal judges for Texas.

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WASHINGTON — The U.S. Congress returns to Washington Tuesday to take a stab at four weeks of legislating before lawmakers hustle home for the final campaign stretch before the November election.

Expect modest results. At first blush, the only must-pass task is the budget, as a Sept. 30 deadline to fund the continued operations of the federal government looms over Capitol Hill.  

But a handful of other issues could play out in the coming weeks, ranging from funding programs to combat the Zika virus to judicial appointments. Given the Texas delegation's size and power, there will almost always be a Texan or two at the center of the action. 

Keeping the lights on

Congress must settle on a budget to keep the government running at least through the election. A shutdown so close to November is unfathomable on Capitol Hill, but it's also unlikely Congress and the president will settle on a long-term funding plan for the next full fiscal year. The betting money holds that a short-term funding resolution will pass that keeps the government open through the election. 

Since this is the single most important issue to address, some speculate that members will split for home as soon as a deal is secured, regardless of what else is pending. 

Key Texas players: Members of the U.S. House Appropriations Committee — U.S. Reps. John Carter, R-Round Rock, Henry Cuellar, D-Laredo, John Culberson, R-Houston and Kay Granger, R-Fort Worth. 

Plugged in House staffers say the appropriators will be at the center of the budget fight early on. But Congressional insiders anticipate that the 2017 budget will be crafted much like the 2016 version — a monster bill negotiated between the top leadership of the House and Senate. 

Timing: Gotta happen by Sept. 30.

Viral partisanship

The federal government will run out of money for programs combatting the Zika virus at the end of the month. The issue has taken on since mosquitos were recently detected carrying the virus in Florida. 

The two chambers couldn't forge a funding compromise earlier in the summer, and the public health urgency of the issue has led many to express frustration over the polarization and lack of productivity in Washington.  

Key Texas players: Again, the appropriators will be pivotal, though many in Washington expect Zika funding to be folded into a larger budget resolution. 

Timing: The Senate is expected to vote again Tuesday on funding. There are no assurances a bill will pass, thanks to a Democratic filibuster threat. Either way, the Zika funding deadline is Sept. 30.

Federal bench press

Texas is becoming increasingly notorious for federal bench vacancies, and the shortage of judges is causing a backlog of case work. But thanks to rare efforts of goodwill between President Obama’s administration and Texas’ two Republican senators there may be help on the way. 

Key Texas players: U.S. Sens. John Cornyn and Ted Cruz

Cornyn and Cruz have a unique set up to expedite judicial nominations. Upon a judicial vacancy, they solicit suggestions from a bipartisan panel of Texas attorneys. The two senators then send recommendations on to the White House. 

The White House followed through by nominating five of those would-be federal judges in March: Walter David Counts, III for the Western District of Texas, E. Scott Frost for the Northern District of Texas, James Wesley Hendrix for the Northern District of Texas, Irma Carrillo Ramirez for the Northern District of Texas and Karen Gren Scholer for the Eastern District of Texas.

Timing: Cornyn will convene the Senate Judiciary Committee to hold hearings for all five on Wednesday. Some hope they will be confirmed by the  full Senate either in September or later in the year. 

Even more Clinton hearings 

The U.S. House Judiciary Committee will hold its annual oversight hearing with FBI Director James Comey, and the topic of hearings to further investigate former Secretary of State and Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton's use of a private email server is expected to be a key line of questioning.

While the Justice Department declined to press charges against Clinton — in line with the FBI's recommendation — the bureau released a report Friday on Clinton's email practices that only further inflamed the issue. 

Key Texas players: Members of the U.S. House Judiciary Committee: U.S. Reps. Lamar Smith, R-San Antonio, Louie Gohmert, R-Tyler, Blake Farenthold, R-Corpus Christi, Sheila Jackson-Lee, D-Houston and John Ratcliffe, R-Heath.

This is the last chance Congressional Republicans have to poke around more on Clinton’s email troubles before the November elections. Two of Texas’ most bombastic delegation members — Gohmert and Jackson-Lee — could make their marks on opposing sides of the conversation. 

Timing: The hearings have not been scheduled yet.

What will not be on the agenda? It is unlikely that the Trans-Pacific Partnership, the largest proposed trade deal in history, will move significantly forward in September. The Supreme Court nomination of Merrick Garland is similarly stalled, with few indicators that it will be addressed this fall, if at all during the Obama administration.

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