For Congress, A Rare Break From Fiscal Crises

Chris Frates

Though the delivery of the president’s budget will keep numbers in the news this week, lawmakers return to Washington from a recess for the first time this year without a fiscal crisis bearing down on them.

With fights over taxes, spending, and debt punted until summer, the three-month period starting this week gives lawmakers the best chance to move landmark legislation on guns and immigration before the looming financial fights return.

And both Senate Democrats and House Republicans have signaled that they intend to use this window to talk about something other than the country’s finances.

“This month the Senate will deal with a number of important matters including judicial and Cabinet nominations,” Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., said Monday. “The Senate will also consider a package of legislation designed to safeguard Americans from gun violence.”

Indeed, Democratic and Republican senators are busy working on a deal to require sweeping background checks on gun purchases, an effort that some Democrats give a 50 percent chance of success. Aides expect to know as early as Tuesday whether there is a deal to be had. But even if talks fail, there will “definitely be floor action on guns in April,” according a senior Democratic leadership aide.

The group of eight senators working to broker a deal on immigration reform also faces a tight timetable. Sen. Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., said Sunday he hopes to get legislation to the Senate floor by May.

That means the group would have to send an agreement to Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., by Thursday to schedule a meeting to consider the legislation. Leahy needs to provide a week’s notice, and Republicans can then ask for another week, which would mean the committee would not take action on the bill until April 25, according to an aide.

Of course, fiscal talk will heat up briefly when President Obama releases his budget Wednesday, but most expect the noise to die down quickly. Though the president’s budget is traditionally released before the House and Senate pass their spending plans, that order was reversed this year. Senate Democrats and House Republicans have already approved their budgets, while Obama’s is being released late in the process.

The one event that could seriously bring the fiscal debate back at full volume would be if Senate Democrats and House Republicans agree to hold a conference committee to work out the differences between the budgets each chamber passed—a possibility the two sides are discussing, but that Democrats see as unlikely.

On the House side, Republican leaders are also shifting gears, with one senior GOP leadership aide half-joking that they won’t be doing anything austerity-related for a while. Instead, they plan to ramp up a push to increase domestic energy production and cybersecurity, and deal with workplace and health care issues, leadership aides said.

On immigration, Republican leaders are holding listening sessions with their members to gauge their appetite for reform while a bipartisan group of House lawmakers works on a proposal, aides said.

And on gun legislation, House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, is still letting the Senate take the lead.

“The speaker has indicated that there are a lot of things we should talk about in terms of the culture of violence in this country, but I don’t have a specific legislative update,” Boehner spokesman Michael Steel said Monday.