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Why Congress is running out of time ahead of the midterms

April 8, 2018
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WASHINGTON — Congress entered 2018 with ambitious tasks on its plate: an overhaul of the nation’s immigration system. Tax cuts. A sweeping infrastructure package. Maybe even entitlement reform.

As lawmakers return to Washington this week after a two-week break, all of those issues but tax reform are still sitting on the to-do list, along with others. And, for a number of reasons, that’s where they’re likely to say.

The congressional clock is ticking. Technically, there may be roughly nine months of the session left, but the House is scheduled to be active for fewer than three months and likely to spend only a few weeks of that time actually working on legislation.

Senator Orrin Hatch,front right, signs the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act next to Speaker of the House Paul Ryan, center, during an enrollment ceremony at the U.S. Capitol in Washington on Dec. 21, 2017.Aaron P. Bernstein / Bloomberg via Getty Images

All those leftover big-ticket items will have to compete for attention with a host of overdue housekeeping tasks; some time-consuming Senate additions, thanks to President Trump’s Cabinet overhaul; and a swarm of mostly symbolic votes designed to give incumbents a potential campaign boost.

As Congress returns, here are some of the outstanding items on the agenda, and the odds they’ll get crossed off the list before Election Day:

1. Immigration

The White House and congressional Democrats each have a pressing immigration priority right now. For Democrats, it’s the continuing legal limbo of those affected by President Donald Trump’s decision last year to end the Deferred Action of Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program. For Trump, it’s funding for construction of his border wall. And for a while, it looked like the two sides might be able to make a deal.

But over the past few months, Trump has shifted from deal-making to finger-pointing mode, blaming Democrats who didn’t sign off on massive funding for the wall for lack of progress on DACA, and vowing in a series of Easter weekend tweets that there would not be a deal to revive the program.

Trump’s announcement last week that he’s dispatching National Guard troops to the U.S.-Mexico border to deal with illegal immigration sounds like a spur to congressional action. But despite some early efforts, a bipartisan immigration compromise now appears unlikely.

2. Confirming Trump nominees

The Senate has three new Trump administration nominees to consider (and that list could grow). And the nominees — Mike Pompeo for secretary of state, Gina Haspel for CIA director and Ronny Jackson for veterans affairs secretary — are expected to face tough questions over their records, leadership and policy positions in confirmation hearings this spring. The GOP’s razor-thin Senate majority — currently 51-49 — stands to make for a particularly high-stakes process.