WASHINGTON — Even before Syria, Congress had a lot to get done in September and little time in which to do it.
Now lawmakers will return to Capitol Hill next week after five weeks away and be consumed with an issue that — 10 days ago — wasn't even part of an already full agenda, with the clock ticking quickly toward a possible government shutdown and debt default.
Rep. Tom Cole, R-Moore, noted that the House has only scheduled nine days of work in Washington this month and is planning to leave town for the last full week — days before funding for most government operations will run out.
“The idea that we're going to have nine legislative days and we're going to lose a week on something no one had even built into the equation — my expectation is that we'll be there a lot more,” Cole said.
“You can't have Congress out of town with a clock like that ticking.”
Cole and other members of the Oklahoma congressional delegation predicted that Congress would pass legislation to keep the government open in the short term so negotiations can continue on the federal budget. Cole said lawmakers could push the decisions into mid-December.
That would track with Congress' recent pattern of putting off major decisions until the holidays; in 2009, the Senate passed the health care reform law on Christmas Eve, and Congress last year waited until New Year's Eve to resolve a dispute over tax hikes.
Before President Barack Obama asked Congress to authorize a U.S. military strike in Syria, much of the talk at Oklahoma lawmakers' town hall meetings was about a tea party-backed effort to defund Obamacare in any legislation to keep the government running after Sept. 30.
Rep. Jim Bridenstine, R-Tulsa, one of the main supporters of the effort, said in an interview that he didn't think the emergence of the Syria issue robbed the issue of momentum.
Bridenstine and Rep. James Lankford, R-Oklahoma City, a member of the House Republican leadership team, said they expect a temporary funding resolution to include language delaying or defunding the health care law, though Lankford said it would be up to the House's top leaders to determine what approach is taken.
Despite pressure at town hall meetings last month to support the effort, most members of Oklahoma's delegation fear it would lead to a government shutdown, since the Democrat-controlled Senate wouldn't accept it.
Bridenstine contends that the goal is to fund everything but Obamacare and so it would be Democrats shutting down the government. He said he would be “astonished” if Obama would shut down the government — a move that, among many other things, could mean not paying U.S. troops — just to protect the health care law.
Lankford said he wants to do everything he can to protect Oklahomans from Obamacare and will turn his focus this month to a law that allows Congress to review regulations before they're implemented. Focusing on the implementation — rather than trying to defund the entire law — is more likely to attract Democratic support and be successful, Lankford said.
Later this fall, the U.S. government is expected to hit the debt ceiling, meaning Congress will have to agree to increase the borrowing authority so bills can be paid. Ultimately, the budget issues — including the cuts known as the sequester — could be resolved with one big agreement, though there's a definite possibility that they won't.
And issues like immigration reform and the farm bill may struggle for attention.
“The budget things are going to be hard,” Cole said, “and it seems that will be all Congress can handle, if it can even get that done.”
First focus on Syria
Six of the seven members of Oklahoma's congressional delegation are opposed to or leaning against U.S. military intervention in Syria; only Sen. Tom Coburn, R-Muskogee, has yet to weigh in.
Obama administration officials are planning to continue briefing lawmakers early in the week, and Obama is expected to address the nation Tuesday about Syria.
The Senate could have a procedural vote on a resolution by Wednesday. In the House, Cole said, it's not clear that a resolution could even get through a committee. However, he said, House members will want to vote on Syria, so legislation will get to the floor one way or the other. A top House leader told members to expect a vote in the next two weeks.
Bridenstine, a former Navy pilot who flew missions in Iraq and Afghanistan and who is likely to oppose the use of force, said he wants to hear how the administration would use air strikes to meet its objectives regarding chemical weapons.
“I don't see how limited cruise missile strikes would prevent the use of (chemical weapons) again,” he said.