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Congress Returns Facing Work Besides Syria Resolution


Now, when Representative Cole and his colleagues return to Capitol Hill today, they will hear about Syria from administration officials.

NPR congressional correspondent Tamara Keith reports.

TAMARA KEITH, BYLINE: Two weeks ago, if you asked what Congress would be dealing when it returned from recess, there would have been a long list, and the budget would have been at the top. Without congressional action, there's the risk of a government shutdown at the end of this month. Just weeks after that, a fight over the debt ceiling looms. But this barely even came up yesterday on the Sunday morning talk shows, the gabfest that set the table for Washington's week ahead.

REPRESENTATIVE BUCK MCKEON: I have 31 grandchildren. Seeing pictures of those children lying there dead is heart-rending.

KEITH: Buck McKeon is a California Republican and chairman of the House Armed Services Committee. He was on CNN's "State of the Union" yesterday, talking about videos of the chemical weapons attack the Obama administration is showing members of Congress. McKeon said he is still leaning against military action.

MCKEON: But we still have the basic problem of asking the military to do more with less.

KEITH: On that same show, Massachusetts Democrat Jim McGovern also voiced skepticism.

REPRESENTATIVE JIM MCGOVERN: If I were the president, I would withdraw my request for the authorization at this particular point. I don't believe the support is there in Congress.

KEITH: President Obama will address the nation Tuesday night. And as soon as Wednesday, the Senate could vote on a resolution authorizing the use of force. When, or if, the House will vote remains unclear, especially given the lack of support from rank and file representatives on both sides of the aisle.

The House may also vote this week on a measure which would postpone the budget fight and possible government shutdown until later this year. But that's not getting much attention. Stan Collender is a longtime federal budget watcher.

STAN COLLENDER: The debate on the budget has basically been put aside, pending a discussion and resolution of what happens in Syria. And that most certainly means that the big kind of cliffhanger that we thought was going to happen around September 30 will be delayed into October or November.

KEITH: Or even later. Outside conservative groups had been pushing for congressional Republicans to use the budget bill to try and force defunding of the president's healthcare law before people start signing up for insurance in October. This makes that fight even less likely.

Collender says no one can predict what the Syria vote will mean for inevitable budget negotiations later this year.

COLLENDER: If the president gets a little weaker because of the debate on Syria, or a little stronger, it could force each side to do something different than it would otherwise do. But all - all the Syria debate's going to do right now is just move the focus away from the budget, because that's not what's preoccupying the average American.

KEITH: It will also likely draw attention away from other congressional agenda items like the Farm Bill, clean energy legislation in the Senate and efforts at tax reform. But Montana Democrat Max Baucus, who is leading that push in the Senate, says it doesn't mean these things are going away.

SENATOR MAX BAUCUS: I think we're able to walk and chew gum pretty well. We can figure it out.

JOHN FEEHERY: Congress can chew gum and walk at the same time, but it doesn't do it easily.

KEITH: John Feehery was an aide to former House speaker Dennis Hastert. He says Syria has become all-consuming, which may just knock immigration reform, something House Republican leaders were already uneasy about, off the 2013 calendar.

FEEHERY: It will almost certainly push immigration to probably November and probably later - probably until next year.

KEITH: Immigration advocates say they intend to keep pushing for action in the House this fall. And those who want to put a stop to ObamaCare say they plan to keep up the fight as well. They're just going to have a whole lot of competition for congressional attention.

Tamara Keith, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.