Congress recently returned to the Capitol following a six-week recess. These periodic breaks are designed to let tempers cool and let the electorate inform the elected of their priorities and their assessment of work done to date. By all accounts the public is dissatisfied; the approval rating for Congress has never been lower. Given the long list of unfinished business before Congress and the limited number of working days that remain, let's hope they got the message.
The first order of business was the very item that sent members home in a bad mood in early August - U.S. dependency on foreign oil. The leadership in the House and Senate, both Democratic and Republican, has been working hard to come up with a compromise energy package that would ensure the public something is being done to address high prices at the gas pump. The issue of drilling for oil, where it can be done and what it costs corporations, is not just a matter for an energy bill. Congress will be at risk of shutting down the government on Oct. 1, the start of the new fiscal year, if members can't come to agreement on this issue. How are these two items connected? The Energy and Water Development appropriations bill contains language each year that prohibits offshore drilling. Republicans in the House of Representatives and the president have threatened to oppose or veto the continuing resolution that must pass by the end of September to ensure continued government operations if the language is included this year.
A continuing resolution will be necessary because Congress has run out of time to pass individual spending bills. Missing that Oct. 1 deadline means all federal agencies would lose their spending authority for the new fiscal year. Given the fact that many Democrats have moderated their positions on offshore drilling, Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) and Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) fear they lack the votes to keep the prohibition in place and, as a result, are in a mood to compromise. Everyone on Capitol Hill is anxious to return home to campaign for presidential candidates and, in many instances, for themselves. The Sept. 26 target adjournment date will certainly mark the end of the 110th if the issue of oil drilling can be resolved.
Another unresolved matter is whether or not members will return to Washington after the election. Again, the details of the continuing resolution will come into play. If the leadership can garner enough votes to keep the government operating through January, that would be the preferred plan. Alternatively, if there are only enough votes for a bill that expires in November, a lame-duck session will be required. A November expiration date would mean a return to Washington in mid-November or early December, with hopes of moving forward on adopting a new budget.