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Congress Heads Back To Debt Talks, Immigration


Maybe it was to honor May Day or perhaps it was just resting up to commemorate today's Cinco de Mayo holiday. For whatever reason, Capitol Hill's lawmakers took a break from lawmaking all last week, but they are back tomorrow for a session lasting the rest of the month. And they do have their work cut out for them. Joining me now to talk about what's coming up in Congress is NPR congressional correspondent David Welna. Thanks for being here, David.


MARTIN: So, what's happening? What is one the upcoming agenda?

WELNA: Well, in the Senate, they're picking up where they left off, trying to pass legislation that would make payment of your state's sales tax mandatory for what you buy on the Internet. There's some resistance to this from anti-tax Republicans. But since it's seen as a boost to brick and mortar small businesses, the bill's expected to pass. Its fate is less certain in the far more tax-averse GOP-controlled House. And that House, meanwhile, is expected to vote on Republican-sponsored legislation that would set priorities for paying the nation's creditors in the event the Treasury runs out of money and has to, at least partially, default on the debt. And this raises the specter once again of a big debt-ceiling limit crisis, like the one in the summer of 2011. And even though that episode damaged Republicans in the polls, some of them are, nevertheless, gung-ho about having another debt ceiling showdown, but this time with a list of who gets paid first and who gets stiffed. Don't expect that bill to go very far in the Senate if it does pass the House.

MARTIN: David, we've been hearing talk for months about some kind of potential grand bargain that would address a lot of really complicated issues before Congress. Any chance of that coming together?

WELNA: Well, Rachel, it's not clear, though. We found out in the past week that thanks to reduced spending by the federal government, the debt ceiling likely won't be reached until sometime next fall rather than during the summer. And that gives more breathing room for finding a deal. And to that end, House Republicans are planning a retreat this month to figure out strategy for dealing with the debt ceiling and a grand bargain. And we also have the Republican chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee, Dave Camp, and the Democratic chairman of the Senate Finance Committee, Max Baucus, likely coming out this week with a proposal to simplify the tax code. The biggest sticking point may be Democrats' insistence that a revamping of the tax code lead to higher tax collections, while Republicans insist it be revenue-neutral.

MARTIN: OK. So, another big issue that has been top of mind in Congress has been immigration. There was a bipartisan bill that is now in the Senate. David, where does that stand right now?

WELNA: Well, it's moving along at a fairly fast pace in the Senate. The Judiciary Committee this week starts to mark up or amend that Gang of Eight bill that would give a lengthy path to citizenship for millions of immigrants who are here illegally. One thing to watch is whether Democrats try to add a provision that would recognize foreign same-sex spouses for legal immigration. Republicans warn such a provision could sink the entire bill if it's added, given the strong GOP resistance to Congress giving its blessing, as it were, to same-sex marriages.

MARTIN: OK. So, as you survey the upcoming agenda, as someone who looks at these things a lot, anything else that caught you eye about what Congress will be taking up soon?

WELNA: Well, I'd keep an eye on a hearing that the House Oversight Committee is holding on Wednesday on the attacks in Benghazi, Libya that killed four Americans on 9/11 last year. The chairman, Darrell Issa, has titled that hearing Benghazi: Exposing Failure and Recognizing Courage. And while he hasn't released witness lists yet, he's hoping to have several whistleblowers testify who he claims the Obama administration has tried to silence. And this week, it'll also be interesting to see what lawmakers have to say about reports of chemical weapons being used in Syria. There's clearly not much stomach in Congress, nor in the entire nation, for getting involved in another protracted armed conflict. And yet at the same time, Republicans are chiding President Obama for what they say is blurring the redline he drew on chemical weapons in Syria. And we're likely to hear more about Obama's renewed pledge to close the detention facility in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, where 100 of the 166 inmates are on hunger strike.

MARTIN: NPR's congressional correspondent David Welna giving us an update on the upcoming congressional agenda. David, thanks so much.

WELNA: You're quite welcome, Rachel.


MARTIN: You're listening to NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.