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Congress struggles with full agenda before November elections

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Lawmakers return to Washington Tuesday facing a daunting to-do list after being on recess for seven weeks, but the outcome of the election will likely determine their top priorities.

The most critical items facing Congress are keeping the government funded and addressing the Zika virus by allocating more funding.

Republicans will spend their time shining a spotlight on Hillary Clinton -- on her use of private email servers as secretary of state, on the Clinton Foundation and her role at the State Department and more.

Congress is scheduled to work for much of September, but a Democratic leadership aide told CBS News that there is already talk about shortening the calendar by two weeks. Members will also be out of town for all of October. 

Here’s what’s on Congress’s plate:

Zika

In July, lawmakers left without approving emergency funding to deal with the Zika crisis. Soon after, officials discovered that the virus had begun spreading in Florida and could be contracted for the first time in the U.S. through mosquito bites.

Last week, Tom Frieden, the director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), warned that his agency would run out of resources to fight Zika by late September. Other Obama administration officials have stressed that more aid is essential for the development of a vaccine, among other things.

For months, Democrats and Republicans have been at odds over how much to approve in emergency funding. President Obama asked for $1.9 billion in February and Republicans later proposed a $1.1 billion measure that would also impose limits on funding to Planned Parenthood, which Democrats have opposed.

House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-California, called last week for consideration of the Senate’s bipartisan bill from earlier this year that “provides $1.1 billion in emergency resources to fight the Zika virus and contains no poison pills.”

Experts predict Congress could approve at least some extra money in September and attach it to a measure that keeps the rest of the government funded.

Government funding

Congress has the option this month of passing a government funding package with higher spending levels for the next fiscal year, which begins Oct. 1. But lawmakers are expected to punt that fight to after the election.

For now, lawmakers will consider a short-term funding bill, known as a continuing resolution (CR), that would extend 2016 funding levels for a few extra months. Bill Hoagland, senior vice president at the Bipartisan Policy Center, tells CBS News he believes lawmakers might try to tack on some Zika funding to this measure as well as emergency disaster funding for Louisiana to use in its flood recovery efforts.

The question is, however, when the bill would expire. Congressional Democrats and the White House would like to pass a short-term CR in September that would last through sometime in December at which point lawmakers would pass a more comprehensive package that would last until Sept. 30, 2017. A group of conservatives, however, want a CR to expire next year, once a new president and new Congress are in office.

While the conservative Freedom Caucus hasn’t taken an official position on government funding yet, a GOP aide tells CBS News that its members have floated the idea to leadership to extend 2016 levels until next March in order to avoid a conflict over new spending levels around the holidays.

“After the election, then the Freedom Caucus may be strengthened or weakened. That would be a determinant as to the next CR...whether that would be extended into March, or more permanent, or longer,” Hoagland said.

Is a government shutdown out of the question for September?

“Politically, [a shutdown] is not something Republicans want to have on their watch before the election,” Hoagland says. But Stan Collender, executive vice president at public relations firm Qorvis MSLGROUP, told CBS News, “You can’t rule it out. Emotions are high.”

Supreme Court nominee

It’s been nearly six months since President Obama nominated Merrick Garland to the Supreme Court to fill the seat left vacant by the late Justice Antonin Scalia. Senate Republicans quickly made their position clear: they wanted the election to determine the balance of the high court.

Republicans have not been completely clear about whether they could reconsider their stance in the lame-duck period when they’ll know whether Hillary Clinton or Donald Trump will take office.

Sen. Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, the chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, said at a rotary club meeting last week that he could reconsider his decision to hold a confirmation hearing for Garland if a large number of senators strongly urged him to weigh the nomination during the lame-duck, according to the Sioux City Journal.

“I think a lot of things can change after the election and people’s current thinking may be modified,” Hoagland said. ”But if Republicans lose the Senate, and Secretary Clinton remains in the White House, they ought to think long and hard about not proceeding with Garland.”

A lame-duck confirmation vote, however, could wind up complicating the spending fight, Collender argued, because Republicans wouldn’t want to cave on everything.

“You could easily have a situation where if Garland gets confirmed before a vote on another CR [or spending bill], a lot of Republicans might just take their vote and go home. These things are not unrelated,” he said.

Oversight investigations

Republicans have spent the last few weeks trying to shift media attention away from Donald Trump and his immigration policies and toward Hillary Clinton, her use of private email servers at the State Department and whether there was a murky line between her role as secretary of state and the Clinton Foundation.

Lawmakers almost certainly will ramp up those efforts on Capitol Hill. Last week, House Oversight and Government Reform Committee Chairman Jason Chaffetz, R-Utah, asked Secretary of State John Kerry to provide the panel with a number of documents by this Wednesday that would help lawmakers “better understand the nature of the relationship between the Clinton Foundation and State Department employees.”

He asked, for example, for all communications to and from Clinton aides Cheryl Mills or Huma Abedin and people seeking employment at the department or foundation. He also requested, among other things, a list of people who weren’t U.S. or foreign government employees who appeared in Clinton’s calendar and phone log when she was secretary of state.

The full committee is scheduled to meet Thursday morning for a hearing about the State Department’s compliance with the Freedom of Information Act.

Anything else?

Democrats have a number of items they’d like to accomplish: votes on gun control legislation, passing aid for Flint, Michigan as it continues to respond to the water crisis, funding for the opioid epidemic and more. Much of their wish list is unlikely to get floor time for the rest of this year in this GOP-controlled Congress.

Republicans in the House are also expected to consider anti-terrorism-related bills, including legislation that would respond to the Obama administration’s $400 million cash payment to Iran, which Republicans have blasted as a ransom payment. While the White House has denied that characterization, the State Department has admitted that the payment was linked with the release of several American prisoners

  • Rebecca Shabad

    Rebecca Shabad is a video reporter for CBS News Digital.