Congress will vote on spending bill Monday to keep government open

Tourists pass the US Capitol building on a tour bus July 19, 2014 in Washington, DC. Congress has been on break for the month of August. (Photo: BRENDAN SMIALOWSKI/AFP/Getty Images)

Tourists pass the US Capitol building on a tour bus July 19, 2014 in Washington, DC. Congress has been on break for the month of August. Credit: Brendan Smialowski/AFP/Getty Images

WASHINGTON — Congress returns to work Monday with a basic task – act fast to keep the government open and then race home to campaign.

After a five-week summer break, lawmakers face a shortened September session with a tight must-do list: pass a temporary spending bill to fund federal departments and agencies through mid-December and extend the freeze on taxing access to the Internet.

Votes also are set on largely futile measures designed to pack a political punch eight weeks before an election that will determine control of Congress.

Wasting no time, the House is scheduled to vote Thursday on the spending bill.

Several lawmakers have clamored for giving President Barack Obama new authority to use military force against Islamic State militants who have seized parts of Iraq, terrorizing religious minorities and threatening the central government in Baghdad.

The militants beheaded two American journalists in Syria, prompting calls for military airstrikes in that country.

But the Obama administration has not indicated that it wants a congressional vote and there is little consensus in Congress on any legislation, or even if it’s necessary.

Sen. Jeff Sessions, a member of the Senate Armed Services Committee, said Obama can use force against the militants in Iraq or Syria based on the military doctrine that if someone “is attacking you or your ally you can respond.”

The president ordering airstrikes or taking other military steps without a vote is “within the realm of his power,” Sessions, R-Ala., said in an interview.

Sen. Jim Inhofe of Oklahoma, the top Republican on the committee, has drafted a resolution authorizing Obama to use military force against Islamic State militants in Iraq, Syria and wherever else they threaten U.S. interests.

Some Republicans are reluctant to give the president any new powers in the absence of a detailed strategy.

Obama has pledged to degrade and destroy Islamic militants, but has not come out with a strategy for dealing with the group. Republicans and some Democrats have seized on that concession, with Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., alluding to it in a campaign ad.

Committee hearings and briefings from administration officials will be part of the September agenda. During the week of Sept. 15, Secretary of State John Kerry is set to testify before Congress about the Islamic threat.

That same week, administration policies will receive further scrutiny as a special House committee investigating the deadly 2012 attack on the U.S. diplomatic mission in Benghazi, Libya, holds its first public hearing.

The high-profile session will focus on whether the State Department has put in place recommendations for improving security at U.S. embassies and diplomatic outposts worldwide.

With an eye toward the midterm elections, House Republicans have scheduled a vote this coming week on a resolution that condemns Obama for failing to notify Congress in advance about the May swap of Army Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl, held prisoner in Afghanistan for five years, for five Taliban leaders.

Congressional investigators said last month that the administration broke the law with the deal.

The administration has defended the swap and its decision to keep Congress in the dark, saying concern about Bergdahl’s health and safety required speedy action.

Faced with fast-moving crises overseas, leading Democrats and Republicans have called for the U.S. to arm Ukraine as it struggles with Russian aggression, but it is unclear whether Congress will act.

The House has scheduled just 12 days in Washington. The Senate plans to stay until Sept. 23.

House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, who told the rank and file that the agenda will be “brief, but busy,” said lawmakers will vote on legislation that will “paint a stark contrast” with the Democrats who control the White House and Senate.

House votes are planned on health care, energy and the economy in political messaging ahead of the Nov. 4 election when the GOP hopes to increase its majority.

In the Senate, Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., is determined to spare his most vulnerable Democrats from Arkansas, Alaska, North Carolina and Louisiana from tough votes and give them plenty of political fodder for the fall campaign.

Senate votes are planned on raising the minimum wage and a constitutional amendment to stop the flow of unlimited, unregulated campaign money.

Unresolved is whether the spending bill will include an extension of the charter of the Export-Import Bank, which helps foreign buyers purchase U.S. exports. The administration is pushing for its inclusion but conservatives are resisting.

Congress also plans hearings on the program that supplies surplus military equipment to local police forces after a white policeman fatally shot an unarmed black 18-year-old, touching off protests in Ferguson, Missouri.