3 big issues Congress will likely punt for now

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Congress is getting ready to leave Washington for a five-week summer recess and, despite progress on reforming the VA and a short-term fix to prevent the Highway Trust Fund from running dry, there are a host of difficult issues that will be left hanging until they return.

The biggest items lawmakers are punting to the fall include the crisis of child migrants flooding across the southern border, a host of foreign policy crises, and a long-term fix to the nation's crumbling infrastructure.

Part of the problem is the looming midterm elections, where, according to a CBS News/New York Times analysis, Republicans are narrowly projected to capture the Senate in November.

"The kind of Republican mindset right now is, 'we're on a roll heading into this election: don't give Barack Obama any signing ceremonies' and so the incentives to cut deals across House and Senate are very limited," American Enterprise Institute congressional scholar Norm Ornstein told CBS News.

"At the same time we have [Senate Majority Leader Harry] Reid looking very hard to get as many confirmations through as he can. Each one is being filibustered, and that means even thought he has the votes for them it soaks up a lot of floor time."

Contributing to the problem, former Rep. Tom Davis, R-Va., told CBS News, is that the president and Republicans never found a "governing rhythm" where they feel like they can compromise on issues. But he also said the problem of non-activity has gotten worse over the years.

"The list gets smaller and smaller the expectations go down with each Congress," Davis said. "There's no coordination on anything except in a crisis they will put some scotch tape and some duct tape and send it out for later."

Here are three issues Congress likely won't tackle until after the recess - if at all this year:

Immigration

An estimated 90,000 children, many from Central America, will cross the border by the end of the fiscal year. More than 60,000 have come to the U.S. already, seeking refuge from violence in their home countries or hoping to be reunited with family members here.

The president has requested $3.7 billion to for agencies struggling to manage the flow, including the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) and Health and Human Services. Two key enforcement agencies within DHS will run out of money between mid-August and mid-September while Congress is away.

Democrats and Republicans agree that the administration needs some money, although they won't give the president the full amount he's requested. But Democrats and Republicans are sharply divided over whether to change a 2008 anti-trafficking law such that it would become easier to deport children coming from Central America. Both sides have dug in and are unlikely to send the administration emergency funds if it doesn't change the law (Republicans) or changes it (Democrats).

Davis still sees at least a slim chance of movement by the time lawmakers leave town at the end of the week, though it likely won't be a permanent fix.

"My gut is they will come together on something they can agree to, but its not going to be a solution," Davis predicted.

"I think if they don't they're going to be in trouble because this thing heats up over August and, if Congress hasn't done anything, it increases pressure and makes their month home a less hospitable stay for them."

Foreign policy crises

A month ago Washington appeared stunned when the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) gained control of vast swaths of northern Iraq and put the country in serious danger of falling apart less than five years after U.S. troops left. The administration is collecting intelligence in Iraq, but has vowed not to put troops on the ground. Now, the crisis has been preempted in the news by the war in Gaza.

If Congress has a plan to restore stability, it isn't clear. The House has passed a resolution barring the president from sending forces in for a sustained combat role without Congressional approval - something he has already pledged not to do. But the House didn't offer any other course of action, and the Senate hasn't taken up the resolution.

As far as the Middle East goes, Sen. Barbara Mikulski, D-Md., included $225 million in emergency supplemental funding for Israel's Iron Dome missile defense system in her legislation to deal with the border crisis. But with the border bill going nowhere it would take a separate - and, as of now, nonexistent - bill to send the Israelis more money.

Over in Ukraine, many lawmakers have pointed at Russia as the probable source of a surface-to-air missile that is believed to have been used by rebels in eastern Ukraine to bring down Malaysia Airlines Flight 17. Sen. Chris Murphy, D-Conn., told Reuters earlier this month that his subcommittee was considering a new sanctions bill against Russia. While the president has the authority to act unilaterally, Murphy said, it would be "worthwhile" to have congressional backing.

But if the conflict escalates with Congress out of town, he won't have the benefit of that backing.

Fiscal issues

While Congress is expected to address a short-term fix to the running-dry Highway Trust Fund this week, the president has asked Congress to pass his four-year, $302 billion transportation plan that would be funded in part by the existing gas tax, and in part by vaguely-defined "pro-growth business tax reform."

The president's actually increases both highway and transit funding, and allows states to charge tolls on interstate highways as a way to raise funds. But there's zero chance it will pass this close to an election, even though the American Society of Civil Engineers gave the nation's public infrastructure a D+ on their annual report card last year and estimated that $3.6 trillion in investment will be needed by 2020.

Other proposals being kicked around by lawmakers haven't come up for a vote, and likely won't this close to the midterms.

"Most political incumbents see no advantage in acting on anything: they see political advantage on maintaining frustration and turmoil in Congress," Ornstein said. "They think people will blame the president or the president's party."

There's also the task of overall funding for the government for the next fiscal year, which begins Oct. 1 and which Congress will need to tackle when they get back to avoid a government shutdown. But Ornstein notes that Republicans will be sensitive to allowing another shutdown like last year's, mainly because when Americans were asked who was to blame for that shutdown, more blamed the GOP.

What to expect? A short bill to get them past the midterm elections, Davis said.

In other words, another punt.

  • Rebecca Kaplan

    Rebecca Kaplan is a political reporter for CBSNews.com.

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