What's on the House agenda before John Boehner departs?


The Capitol dome on Capitol Hill in Washington.


House Republicans appear to be on the verge of selecting the next speaker of the house, but that's not the only hurdle on the horizon: beyond the leadership vacuum, a bevy of significant policy challenges ensure that lawmakers will be working furiously as the current legislative session draws to a close.

The most immediate concern: what to do about the nation's debt ceiling.

The United States is set to hit its borrowing limit early next month, according to a letter Treasury Secretary Jack Lew sent to Congressional leaders urging them to lift the debt ceiling (his ninth such letter this year.)

"Based on our best and most recent information, we now estimate that extraordinary measures will be exhausted no later than Tuesday, November 3," Lew wrote. "At that point, we expect Treasury would be left with less than $30 billion to meet all of the nation's commitments--an amount far short of net expenditures on certain days, which can be as high as $60 billion."

It's unclear if Republicans will vote to approve an increase. Many conservatives oppose a "clean" debt ceiling increase - one approved without conditions or corresponding budget cuts -- but they fear outgoing Speaker John Boehner may try to introduce one as he heads for the exit.

On Wednesday, 236 Republicans, along with a handful of Democrats, passed a bill called the Default Prevention Act. In the event that the debt ceiling is not increased, the legislation would direct the Treasury to skip certain payments and prioritize principal and interest on the national debt. The measure is aimed at minimizing the unknown financial consequences of exceeding the borrowing limit.

Experts remain concerned, however. If the debt limit is not increased, the repercussions would be felt at home and abroad, said Stan Collender, an expert on the congressional budget process and an Executive Vice President at Qorvis MSLGROUP.

In the short term, the global effects would be minimal, Collender said: "It's not going to be the economic doomsday situation that some are proclaiming."

But in the long term, the effects could be more pronounced: countries that have significant U.S. bond holdings -- namely China and Japan -- might be encouraged to sell their U.S. bonds, or at least not buy more, Collender explained.

If those bonds aren't paid on time, he said, "There would be hell to pay."

Domestically, the United States could default on payments to military members, veterans and seniors citizens, according to the Treasury Department.

Some conservatives have proposed legislation that would raise the debt ceiling, but it would also call for mandatory funding cuts in exchange for lifting the borrowing limit. That bill is expected to come up for a vote on Friday, but it's a nonstarter with Democrats, who have insisted on a clean bill to lift the debt ceiling. Even in the unlikely scenario the Republican debt ceiling measure passes the Senate, it would face a likely veto at the White House.

If that bill stalls, some in the GOP believe it could pave the way for the passage of a bill more amenable to Democrats. But the clock is ticking, and whether lawmakers can bridge their differences before November 3 remains to be seen.

Work left on budget, EX-IM bank, and highway funding

Come December, the House will face yet another deadline on government funding. On Dec. 11, the short-term spending bill passed at the end of September will expire, and large swaths of the government will shut down if a new spending bill is not passed.

Lawmakers nearly forced a government shutdown in September due to a fight over cutting off funding for Planned Parenthood, a women's health care organization reviled by many in the GOP because it provides abortion services. There could be a renewed effort by conservatives to strip Planned Parenthood's funding in December, but absent a change in heart among Democrats, it's hard to see how they achieve that goal.

Republican leaders, eager to avoid a shutdown, could again be caught between the demands of their conservative members and the limits of divided government. They've said repeatedly that they won't permit a repeat of the 2013 shutdown, but at this point, the path forward for government funding remains murky at best.

The House is also expected to vote in the coming months on reauthorizing the Export-Import Bank, which offers loans to foreign entities that want to make large scale purchases of U.S. goods. The bank's charter expired on June 30, and since then, the bank hasn't been able to offer new loans.

Earlier this month, a bipartisan discharge petition was filed in an attempt to force a vote on reauthorizing the bank's charter. That vote saw dozens of House GOP moderates break with their conservative colleagues and join Democrats to enact a policy that is supported by the business wing of the GOP.

After the bank's charter expired at the end of June, General Electric CEO Jeff Immelt said in July: "In country after country, you find the same thing: deals are structured around export credit financing. And without it, in many cases, you can say goodbye to those deals and the jobs that go with them."

A vote in the House to reauthorize the bank's charter is expected by the end of this month. If it passes, it's expected to go to the Senate, which approved a similar measure in June, before the charter's expiration. But Senate passage this time may not be as easy. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell has said he opposes Ex-Im and may be reluctant to introduce the House measure in the Senate. It's not clear how senators who support the bank might surmount McConnell's objections, but President Obama has promised to sign the bill if it reaches his desk.

One final agenda item for the House is funding the nation's highway system and infrastructure projects. The current funding measure is set to expire October 29, and Congress has repeatedly struggled in recent years to renew infrastructure funding.

The House is currently working on a $325 billion bipartisan bill to fund transportation projects over the next six years. If approved, the bill would account for $261 billion on highways, $55 billion on transit and $9 billion on safety programs. But while most are behind the idea of spending money to upgrade the nation's crumbling infrastructure, like most priorities in Washington, how its paid for is the issue. Currently only the first three years of funding are guaranteed.

The bill enjoys the support of Republicans and Democrats on the House Transportation Committee, and a similar measure enjoys bipartisan support in the Senate. As a result, it stands a good chance of passage. Because the process is likely to extend beyond the October 29 deadline for the expiration of highway funding, lawmakers are expected to pass a short-term bill to bridge the gap.