US Sen. Al Franken, D-Minn., center, speaks to the media after closed briefing on Syria on Sept. 6 on Capitol Hill in Washington. (Alex Wong / Getty Images)
WASHINGTON — Congress interrupted its summer recess to debate US military action in the Middle East, but with that debate stalled, senior lawmakers say it’s “back to business” on Capitol Hill.
Both chambers spent the final week of a five-week break and the first week back here crafting measures to authorize US military strikes in Syria, and shuffling between classified briefings on an Aug. 21 chemical attack and US response options. That changed Sept. 10 when Obama asked for time for a Russian plan to seize those weapons to be examined.
Senior lawmakers in both chambers are split about whether to keep alive work on Syria use-of-force measures. But they agree on one thing: It’s time to begin work on a busy fall and winter agenda that could be interrupted at any moment by the resumption of the drums of war.
“It’s back to business,” Senate Armed Services Committee Ranking Member Sen. James Inhofe, R-Okla., told Defense News.
That means lawmakers will largely turn their collective focus away from matters of war and toward matters of state.
The fall and winter docket includes a continuing resolution (CR) that would keep the Pentagon and other federal agencies funding until Dec. 15, and avert — for now — a government shutdown. It also includes the on-again-off-again quest for a sequester-addressing grand fiscal bargain. Also throw in a stalled immigration bill that could greatly benefit US defense firms, and completion of Pentagon policy and spending legislation.
“We’ve got the CR coming over next week,” Inhofe said on Sept. 11. “We’ve got a lot of things that we’re supposed to be doing, and I think we’re going to start in on them.”
A House GOP-crafted CR stalled last week in the House due to controversial elements, but Senate leaders plan to quickly take it up once the lower chambers passes it. The House’s CR would fund the Pentagon at post-sequestration 2013 levels, but prohibit things like new program starts and multi-year contracts.
Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz of Florida, Democratic National Committee chair, says even if Obama renews his request for Congress to vote on a Syria authorization measure, lawmakers cannot just put aside the CR and big fiscal bill that deals with sequestration.
“We’ve got to be able to walk and chew gum at the same time,” Wasserman-Schultz told Defense News on Sept. 11. “[Syria] is a very serious issue, but I think it’s something that we can move forward with concurrently” to work on other issues, she added.
Senate Foreign Relations Committee Ranking Member Sen. Bob Corker, R-Tenn., who has been heavily involved in the Syria resolution deliberations, said “we’re, obviously, moving to domestic issues.”
Corker would rather the Senate focus on some of the most-pressing items on the fall and winter agenda, like a sequester-addressing fiscal bill.
“No,” he said Wednesday when asked by reporters if he expected a vote. “We’re moving on to an energy efficiency bill,” he added sarcastically, “with all of the other things in the world that we have to deal with…”
Senate Armed Services Committee Vice Chairman Sen. Jack Reed, D-R.I., was pithy but candid during a brief Sept. 10 interview about the need to move back to work on a big fiscal deal, a short-term funding bill, and things like immigration reform.
Even with the possibility of another round of debate on Capitol Hill about the scope and language of a use-of-force measure, Reed said of getting back to work on the fall agenda: “We just have to — we have no other choice.”
Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman Sen. Carl Levin, D-Mich., last week signaled he’s not worried about the paused Syria debate nor a possible second one interfering with Congress’ packed agenda. When asked whether he believes the upper chamber will take up by the end of this calendar year the 2014 defense authorization bill his panel passed in June, Levin replied in the affirmative.
That would be welcome news for a Pentagon and defense sector that often says unfinished legislation creates for them too much uncertainty that makes it hard to manage weapon programs.
Though lawmakers seemed to breathe a sigh of relief because they may not be forced to make tough votes on Syria with the American people overwhelmingly opposed to US strikes. But as last week progressed, there were signs that relations between White House officials and deal-minded GOP senators, who analysts say are the key to forging a sequester-address accord, are fraying.
Corker told reporters the White House’s credibility with lawmakers is nearing a nadir.
“I got to be honest, I will drop what I’m doing and work with this administration on any serious issue there is to work on,” a clearly frustrated Corker said. “I could not be more disappointed.
“On the fiscal issues, when I heard the recap they gave to Democratic senators...” Corker let his comment trail off, shaking his head. “They’ve lost tremendous credibility there.”
Corker told reporters summer-long talks between the White House and eight GOP senators on the kind of grand bargain deal that would lessen or end sequestration have broken down. And he pinned the blame on the White House.
“I don’t think there’s one of the eight senators who participated in those [grand bargain] meetings who feels like they were being credible on what they were doing,” Corker said. “The way it ended, the way they portrayed it to Democratic senators” was inaccurate, he added.
But several House veterans on the other side of the aisle say the problem in getting a big fiscal deal done is not Obama nor his aides, but ideological differences and dysfunction within the Republican Party.
“I don’t think the Syria debate affects things. We’re just at this point so deadlocked generally,” said Rep. Sander Levin, D-Mich. “It’s the polarization. It’s the deadlock. It’s the chaos within the Republican conference — the hardliners there.”
Rep. James Moran, D-Va., a senior House Appropriations defense subcommittee member, doubts whether Congress will get done many of the major things on the fall-winter slate.
“We’ll have to do a CR,” Moran said. And he predicts Congress will eventually pass a 2014 Pentagon appropriations bill, but he is “just not sure” whether the House will address a Senate-passed immigration bill that would require US officials to spend about $38 billion on technologies and security personnel along America’s southern border — a potential boost for defense firms in the sequester era.
“Overall, I don’t think we’re going to get much done,” Moran said. “But that’s par for the course around here.