Politics & Government

Where things stand as Congress leaves town

WASHINGTON -- Congress is heading out of town for Memorial Day recess, but lawmakers still have plenty of items on their to-do lists.

Members on both sides of the aisle have pushed for action to address issues ranging from the Zika virus to authorizing defense programs. With roughly two months worth of legislative days left in 2016, here's a look at what's going on with some of the top issues in Congress:

ZIKA

"The mosquitos are coming" has been a frequent message in urging action on emergency funds to combat the Zika virus, which is spread through mosquitoes and has been proven to cause birth defects. In February, President Barack Obama requested that Congress allocate $1.9 billion for the effort. The Senate approved a compromise $1.1 billion measure on May 17, and the House approved a $622 million package the next day.

House and Senate lawmakers will now go to conference on the appropriations measures that encompass the Zika packages, where Democrats and Republicans will have to find some consensus on how much should be spent to combat the virus, and whether and how that money should be offset with cuts.

PUERTO RICO

The U.S. territory is facing a July 1 deadline to pay off some of its $72 billion of debt, as the island's financial situation continues to spiral downward. The Puerto Rican governor has warned that the island could default on its payment unless Congress agrees on legislation to restructure its debt. A House committee approved a bipartisan bill this week to address the debt crisis, including creation of a fiscal control board.

But the bill still faces opposition from some Democrats, with Rep. Luis Gutierrez, D-Ill., pledging Thursday to "actively" work to defeat the bill and arguing it infringes on Puerto Rican's rights. Other House Democrats say the bill is the best they could get. Its fate is not clear in the Senate, where leaders are reserving judgment until the House passes its bill. Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., said he expects the Senate to take up the Puerto Rico legislation in mid or late June. But several Democratic senators raised concerns during their policy lunch about the House bill.

OPIOID EPIDEMIC

House and Senate lawmakers are preparing to go to conference on differing measures to combat the opioid epidemic. The Senate overwhelmingly approved the Comprehensive Addiction and Recovery Act in March, and the House passed 18 separate bills on the epidemic two months later. As they work to reconcile the measures, Democrats in both chambers are also calling for Congress to pass emergency funding to address the crisis, but that effort has yet to go anywhere.

FLINT WATER CRISIS

Lawmakers have been working for at least six months to assist the people of Flint, Mich., who are dealing with a water contamination crisis that began in 2014. A $220 million aid package was included in the text of a water development bill in the Senate, which a Senate committee approved in late April. As the bill awaits floor time in the Senate, Michigan Rep. Dan Kildee, a Democrat from Flint, tried unsuccessfully to call up a federal aid package this week. House Democrats plan to look for a vehicle to provide aid for Flint as the House takes up additional spending bills.

SPENDING BILLS

The Senate continues to grind through spending bills, approving three of the 12 this month. The House has approved one, and a second bill went down in a dramatic fashion over controversial amendments, throwing the future of the appropriations process into question.

DEFENSE POLICY

The House passed a measure authorizing defense programs last week, and this week the Senate began the process to bring its own measure to the floor. But Senate Democrats have slowed consideration of the bill, arguing they need more time to examine the more than 1,600-page measure that was marked up in closed sessions. Republicans chided Democrats for slow-walking the measure, particularly just before Memorial Day. Contentious floor fights over issues such as women in the draft and the Guantanamo Bay detention center are also expected as the Senate continues work in June.

CRIMINAL JUSTICE OVERHAUL

Improving the criminal justice system has rare bipartisan support in Congress. House Judiciary Chairman Robert Goodlatte, R-Va., was optimistic Thursday that the House would take up some criminal justice measures soon, according to The Wall Street Journal. Senate Majority Whip John Cornyn, R-Texas, said Thursday that House action could spur the Senate to move on a bipartisan sentencing bill, though Sen. Tom Cotton, R-Ark., a key opponent of the Senate bill, has declared it "dead."

So Congress has plenty to do when lawmakers return from Memorial Day, though they face a shortened legislative calendar: They have two weeks off in July for the presidential conventions, the entire month of August and most of October.

"Everybody's aware that the window is closing," Senate Majority Whip John Cornyn, R-Texas, said Thursday. "But it's always been that way, and sometimes that creates a sense of urgency and it helps get things done."

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