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Members of Congress are like so many college seniors this week, more worried about the future than the present as they return to Washington from their spring break. With the 2018 midterms just seven months away, lawmakers are focused on re-election, not passing major legislation.
Yet it is only March. Congress has 70 to 80 legislative days left before the election (depending on which chamber, and how you count). Here are the issues with the best chances of seeing legislative action before voters head to the polls this fall.
Farm bill and food stamps: The quinquennial farm bill debate is expected to start in the next month. But the pivotal agriculture bill could be derailed by a deep divide over the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP, formerly known as Food Stamps. House Republicans are expected to add significant new work requirements for SNAP recipients in their farm bill. But Senate Republicans have no similar plans, knowing such ideas have little chance of getting the bipartisan support the bill will need for passage in the upper chamber. Forecast: heated debate ending in a continuation of current policy.
Driverless cars: The House passed a bill last fall setting initial, broad rules for driverless vehicles. Now, the debate moves to the Senate, with the focus on a bipartisan bill from the Commerce Committee. Forecast: Unclear. This issue could move quickly with little debate or could get snagged in controversy in the Senate.
Opioids: Key committees in the House and Senate will hold hearings this week on bills to combat the opioid crisis with increased enforcement, for example on distribution of fentanyl-laced drugs or abuse of prescription laws, as well as new treatment funding. Forecast: This may be the issue most likely to get comprehensive attention before the election, if the two chambers can work together.
The debt and deficit: The House plans to vote Thursday on a Constitutional amendment that would require a balanced federal budget. Forecast: Symbolic passage of the amendment in the House this week followed a few months from now by a vote to continue and possibly increase record-high spending levels.
Nominations: Senate Republicans will resume their effort to deal with a backlog of judicial and administrative nominations this week. Forecast: A monthslong war over nominations may take over the Senate. A few debates, including over nominees for CIA director and Veterans Affairs secretary, will make national headlines.
Trump wildcards: Tariffs. Sanctions. Iran. Russia. North Korea. There are several areas where actions by President Donald Trump could spark a Congressional response. Forecast: Only a stunning act of provocation would likely push Republicans to limit the president’s power or oppose his policies. It is not impossible, but thus far there has been no indication that party leaders are willing to publicly tangle with their CEO.
Lisa Desjardins is a correspondent for PBS NewsHour, where she covers news from the U.S. Capitol while also traveling across the country to report on how decisions in Washington affect people where they live and work.
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