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Congress Leaves Town Next Week, But Will Anyone Notice?


This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Scott Simon. The U.S. Congress will go on vacation in a week. Some people might ask how will we be able to tell? NPR's senior Washington correspondent, Ron Elving, joins us in our studios. Ron, thanks for being with us.

RON ELVING, BYLINE: Good to be with you, Scott.

SIMON: The last week before summer recess is often an occasion for a flurry of bills to get through Congress before it shuts down. What about this year?

ELVING: This year, not so much. There will be some efforts made, but not much is likely to get finished before vacation begins a week from now. And then, of course, there's the longer list of major issues not even being discussed. Things like comprehensive immigration reform or restructuring the tax code. One thing we do expect Congress to finish is a funding mechanism for the Highway Trust Fund so projects underway or about to begin can proceed. But in saying they're getting that done, we have to put that in quotation marks because what they're passing is just a stopgap funding measure. It doesn't fix the continuing shortfall in the fund, which is running on empty.

SIMON: And it is that the case because people - what? - are driving less or they're paying less. Why is that?

ELVING: Cars are getting more efficient, and the gas tax has been stuck at 18 cents a gallon for a number of years now. And the need for repairs and new roads and bridges keeps growing and outstripping the existing fund.

SIMON: What about what's going on at the border - unaccompanied children from Central America?

ELVING: President Obama met with leaders of three Central American countries that have been the source of much of this new imminent migration of unaccompanied minors yesterday at the White House and renewed his call for Congress to expand the federal response at the border - taking care of these kid, processing them through the system, returning them to their home countries, in some cases, or relocating them in the United States depending on their circumstances. Congress has said, basically, no to that request.

The Senate is talking about maybe providing something like two thirds of that. The House would cut it down to maybe 30 percent of what the president asked. But the House also wants to make some changes to the 2008 law that was kind of a magnet for a lot of these children in terms of having an opportunity to stay here. And that idea has some friends in the Senate as well. So the two sides are probably going to be talking about this for some while to come. And it will probably last into the fall and not actually get done before we recess.

SIMON: Are there some other fronts where you see some action?

ELVING: Another big story this year has been the scandalous condition of admissions at some facilities of the Veterans' Administration. There's a bill to address these problems. But that, too, has been bogged down in political cost pressures. The House and Senate are about $15 billion apart on the size of the bill and nowhere near each other on how to pay for it. So that one will last into the fall as well.

And then there's reauthorization of the export-import bank that helps some U.S. businesses compete in world markets. That's become more controversial than ever with populist criticism from the from the right as well as from the left and divisions within the business community as well.

SIMON: Doesn't Congress typically get a little sluggish in an election year? They don't want to have to answer for too much. And, of course, we have a divided government that's split between both parties.

ELVING: That is all true. But what is happening now is not typical. The parties have usually done better than this at accepting each other's legitimacy, seeing themselves as rivals, yes, but rivals on the same team. Split control - nothing new. It's closer to being the rule than the exception. The party in the White House has held both chambers of Congress in just 20 of the last 60 years. So this is a Congress, however, in which major efforts and minor efforts and even housekeeping bills are stalled because partisanship, which is always present in legislatures and parliaments of all kinds, has advanced so far in this Congress as to be incapacitating.

SIMON: NPR's Ron Elving. Thanks so much.

ELVING: Thank you, Scott. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.