Three Things to Watch as Congress Returns

Both chambers of Congress return Tuesday to begin the busiest block of legislative months this year. Will the Senate return to 'regular order'? Will lawmakers push the U.S. into war in Syria or North Korea? (John T. Bennett / Defense News)

Congress is back. For better or worse.

With the exception of a Friday or Monday here and a week there, the U.S. House and Senate are scheduled to be in session 13 of the next 17 weeks. Both chambers’ next lengthy recess will be the annual August break.

The immediate legislative focus on Capitol Hill will be on non-defense and -national security issues: gun control and immigration. But there are several things for defense wonks to keep an eye on as the 113th Congress attempts to move beyond the recent partisanship that stalled many bills and left Washington lurching from crisis to crisis.

1. Regular Order. Republican and Democratic leaders in both chambers say they want to get back to marking up annual spending bills, including defense appropriations legislation, and then bringing them to the floor for debate and amendments.

When talking with rank-and-file members, especially in the Senate, there is a strong undercurrent of crisis fatigue. Yet, as I reported in an article in Monday’s Defense News, there are reasons to question whether the Senate actually can agree on the floor procedures — numbers of amendment, length of debate, 60- or 51-vote margins, etc. — to allow the defense and other annual spending bills to move to a final up-or-down vote.

2. Grand Bargain. There is agreement among Republicans and Democrats on something else: Replacing the twin $500 billion domestic and defense sequestration cuts with a package of other deficit-paring moves.

President Barack Obama’s 2014 budget plan, to released Wednesday, will propose a broad plan that would do just that. Some powerful GOP lawmakers, in a shift, tell me they will not immediately reject to the president’s proposals. Several GOP senators Obama has been courting, however, tell me if a deal is not in place when Congress adjourns for its August recess, the odds of a grand bargain passing during Obama’s tenure are slim.

The two sides are talking, but Democrats and Republicans still disagree on what should go into any sequestration-replacement package. On this crucial point, little of substance has changed since I penned this piece after the “fiscal cliff” crisis in late December and January.

3. North Korea and Syria. Things can change quickly. When Congress adjourned in late March for a two-week recess, as I reported on March 22, more and more influential lawmakers from both parties were calling for American military intervention in Syria.

Since, North Korea’s young leader has turned bellicose, threatening the United States and South Korea with his long-range missile and nuclear-arms arsenals. Several hearings are slated this week on what to do about Syria’s civil war. And lawmakers undoubtedly will have lots to say about the Korean Peninsula instability. Is Washington headed for war? If so, where?

John T. Bennett

John T. Bennett

Bennett is the Editor of Defense News' CongressWatch channel. He has a Masters degree in Global Security Studies from Johns Hopkins University.
John T. Bennett