Back to work, Congress plays it safe

The dome of the U.S. Capitol is seen March 19, 2014 in Washington, D.C.

During their two-week spring break, members of Congress up for re-election ran ads addressing significantly divisive issues like reforming Obamacare and approving the Keystone XL pipeline. Now that they're back in Washington, lawmakers are looking at a more modest, achievable agenda.

The Republican-led House on Monday afternoon opened its spring session by unanimously approving the Digital Accountability and Transparency Act (DATA Act), a bipartisan bill that would help standardize and publish federal spending data. The legislation, which already passed in the Democrat-led Senate, now goes to President Obama's desk to become law.

Later this week, the House is slated to take up two spending bills, one to fund military construction and the Department of Veterans Affairs and one to fund the legislative branch. The early adoption of spending bills indicates that House leaders aren't interested in once again using the threat of another government shutdown as leverage -- at least not in the months leading up to the midterm elections.

In a memo sent to House Republicans on Friday, House Majority Leader Eric Cantor, R-Va., laid out the rest of the House's spring agenda, which includes consideration of issues like education. Next week, the House will consider the Success and Opportunity Through Quality Charter Schools Act, a bill to consolidate federal charter school programs and give states more flexibility to allocate federal charter school funding.

The House this month will also consider several bills that address human trafficking, such as the Fraudulent Overseas Recruitment and Trafficking Elimination Act, sponsored by House Committee on Foreign Affairs Chairman Ed Royce, R-Calif. "Human trafficking is modern day slavery and it is happening all too frequently across this country," Cantor wrote in his memo. "The federal government has an important role to play in putting an end to this practice which is why the House will take action in May to combat this horrific crime."

Cantor said the House will also consider a bill to make the Research and Development tax credit permanent, as well as other isolated tax measures, while the House Ways and Means Committee "continues to gather feedback" on a bold proposal for comprehensive tax reform that Ways and Means Chairman Dave Camp, R-Mich., released earlier this year.

Congressional leaders have already written off comprehensive tax reform as too challenging to tackle this year, though President Obama has proposed using tax reforms to pay for another agenda item: renewing the Highway Trust Fund, which expires in September. If Congress doesn't renew the fund, the president warned in February, "we could see construction projects stop in their tracks, machines sitting idle, workers off the job." Acknowledging that tax reform is unlikely to happen, the White House said it "will work closely with Congress and listen to their ideas" for how to renew the fund.

Immigration is another issue that's too challenging for the House to tackle in the months ahead -- House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, last week mocked his Republican colleagues for being too scared to take up the issue. Capitalizing on Boehner's remarks, the Democratic National Committee on Monday released a video that calls out Cantor for leaving immigration off of his spring agenda.

The House also plans to vote next month on whether to hold former IRS official Lois Lerner in contempt, an issue that's sure to come down largely along partisan lines.

Over in the Senate, Democrats plan to hold votes on economic that are designed in large part for political gain. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., has set up a procedural vote for Wednesday on a bill to raise the federal minimum wage from $7.25 an hour to $10.10 an hour. The bill is unlikely to get the 60 votes needed to overcome Republican opposition.