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Congress Faces Five Big Issues Following Summer Recess

When Congress comes back in session this week, members will have to brush off the dust on major legislation they left undone before their break.
Image: Democrat Legislators stage Sit-In to try to force vote on gun restrictions
The lights of the U.S. Capitol shine against a darkening Washington, DC sky.Jim Lo Scalzo / EPA

When Congress returns to work in D.C. on Tuesday, members will have to brush off the dust accumulated on a stack of bills left undone prior to their summer recess.

A tense partisan climate has led to inaction on several issues like funding research for the mosquito-borne Zika virus and moving forward with an anti-terrorism package in response to the nightclub shooting massacre in Orlando.

Though Congress was able to pass a Puerto Rico bankruptcy relief and opioid relief bill before their August recess, several politicians, including President Barack Obama, are hoping they will pass other stalled legislation before their month-long break beginning in October.

But members will have to act quickly if they plan on passing legislation that would prevent a government shutdown. Both chambers will have fewer than 20 days to complete this work before taking off for their month-long election season recess.

Here are the issues Congress is likely to address upon returning from vacation, or risk not providing a solution before year's end.

Funding Zika Vaccines

After the Senate failed twice to move and vote on a $1.1 billion Zika funding bill prior to their summer recess, the chamber will try once again to take it up on their first day back from recess.

Senator Majority Leader Mitch McConnell has set up an evening vote on Tuesday to overcome cloture, a procedural hurdle, which would effectively end floor debate and move the bill for a final vote.

Senate Democrats were willing to support the original bill passed by the GOP-controlled House, but twice turned back on invoking cloture after Republicans added what Democrats described as "poison pill" provisions.

The new provisions would take money out of Ebola research, Planned Parenthood funding and Obamacare to fund Zika research.

McConnell, R-Kentucky, said in a statement released in early August that if Democrats prioritized Zika over Planned Parenthood and gave unanimous consent, Senate leadership would "pass the conference report and send it straight to the President."

With several government health agencies running out of money to combat Zika and dozens of non-travel infections in the Sunshine State, Florida Gov. Rick Scott was expected to spend Tuesday on Capitol Hill in an effort to put pressure on members to addresses funding, but changed plans due to Hurricane Hermine.

If Democrats do not meet the 60 votes needed to close floor debate, they can vote directly after to invoke cloture on the Department of Defense Appropriations bill, which provides funds for Zika relief.

And if that does not work either, a funding provision for Zika could be introduced in a bulk omnibus bill.

Tackling Appropriations

Ever since the GOP gained control of Congress in 2014 Republican leadership has promised to send President Obama a dozen appropriation bills. Partisan bickering, however, has prevented them from sending even one to the president's desk.

September 30 marks the end of the 2016 fiscal year and just happens to be the last day before House members are scheduled to start their month-long fall recess. The Senate's recess starts a week later.

If members do not pass a continuing resolution to extend the deadline, the country could face another government shutdown. The last time the U.S. government came to a standstill was in 2013.

But members of Congress didn't leave Washington this summer without putting some bills in movement.

The Senate Appropriations Committee has approved all 12 appropriation bills to move to the floor, while the House Appropriations Committee has moved on 10. But getting them through a deeply divided Congress and to the floor for a vote has proven highly difficult in years past.

Congress will likely pull a repeat performance on this issue: pass a continuing resolution to extend the deadline that will set up another funding battle in December. But there's a chance members could extend the continuing resolution well into the lame duck season.

"I'm not going to get into any of those things," Speaker Paul Ryan said in his last press conference before recess. "I don't think it's right at this stage to say we're done with appropriations."

Appointing a Supreme Court Nominee

Five months after President Obama nominated him for the Supreme Court, Merrick Garland is still waiting for his Senate hearing.

Members of the Senate GOP leadership have refused to give Garland a hearing, citing that the next president should fill the spot vacated by the late Justice Antonin Scalia. But the growing number of Republicans pivoting against Donald Trump has heightened the call to approve Garland or risk the nomination of a more liberal nominee under President Hillary Clinton.

According to interviews with NBC News, Democrats are making the case for hesitant Republicans to reject Trump by choosing Garland.

At the Sioux City Rotary Club late last month, Senator Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, hinted that Garland could get a lame-duck hearing if enough senators stir interest in one after the November election. But it seems unlikely that Senate leadership will call Garland up for a hearing — at least for now.

"The Leader has been clear: The next president will make the nomination for this vacancy," Sen. McConnell's Deputy Chief of Staff Don Stewart said in a statement.

Impeaching IRS Commissioner

Members of the conservative House Freedom Caucus will continue their push to impeach Internal Revenue Services Commissioner John Koskinen, a fight that started over a year ago.

Rep. John Fleming, R-Louisiana, and Rep. Tim Huelskamp, R-Kansas, filed a resolution to force a vote of impeachment before recess on the grounds that Koskinen intentionally lied about details surrounding the 2010 IRS scandal that targeted Tea Party organizations.

Related: GOP Seeks to Impeach IRS Chief Over Alleged Tea Party Targeting

The resolution marked the third attempt to impeach the IRS commissioner and it's likely not the last. The Freedom Caucus may pass a "privilege resolution" to immediately force an impeachment vote in the next couple weeks, skirting around the House Rules Committee and Judiciary Committee, who historically authorize impeachments. The move is in direct contrast to what House leadership deems a potentially risky precedent for declaring impeachments.

"We expect the full conference to discuss the appropriate path ahead when we get back into session," Speaker Ryan's spokeswoman Ashlee Strong told NBC News.

The last time the House impeached a government official was in 2010.

Finally Addressing Gun Control?

House Speaker Paul Ryan, R-Wisc., piqued interest among Republican and Democrats alike when he announced that his chamber would vote on a counterterrorism bill before Congress left for recess. The bill included a provision that would prevent suspected terrorists from buying guns.

But the Dallas police ambush and push-back from the conservative House Freedom Caucus has delayed voting on the measure until after members come back in September.

Ryan's effort to pass some form of gun control was viewed as a peace offering to Democrats, who had staged a 25-hour sit-in on the House floor in June. But if a resolution isn't picked up soon, the Democratic caucus has promised that they will not stay silent.

"We're not going to stand here and tell you we're going to do 1, 2,3 and A,B,C," Rep. John Lewis, D-Georgia, said after a closed-press meeting with Ryan in July. "But don' worry, we will continue to act."