WASHINGTON — Members of the House and Senate have returned home for their annual August recess. It's a five-week break from legislating during which they will fill their calendars with business round tables, coffee shop chats and town halls.
Here's a primer on the status of hot-button policy issues so you can more effectively yell at — or, better yet, rationally discuss them with — your elected leaders.
It appears that Republicans and Democrats are moving even further apart on the central sticking point here: What to do with the nutrition assistance program commonly referred to as food stamps?
That program has grown dramatically in recent years as a result of the recession and government efforts to enroll more people.
The desire to rein in the program runs so deep among conservatives that the GOP-controlled House dealt a stunning defeat to a farm bill proposal that would have cut a little more than $20 billion from food stamps.
Most Democrats balked at the scope of the cuts and said they would take food away from hungry people, while many of those on the right said the cuts weren't deep enough.
The House later approved a farm bill without any of the food stamp provisions, saying those would come up later.
It now appears that the House is moving further to the right on this issue after Republicans floated a proposal to cut as much as $40 billion from food stamps — twice as much as previously proposed and 10 times the $4 billion in cuts that were included in the Senate version. Both the House and Senate, which is controlled by Democrats, will need to reach an agreement when they return before the legislation can go to the president's desk.
Senate Agriculture Committee Chairwoman Debbie Stabenow slammed House Republicans' proposed cuts last week, so it remains to be seen how the two sides will work out their differences.
The Senate already approved a bill that includes both a pathway to citizenship for immigrants in the country illegally and provisions aimed at tightening border security.
The House has been pursuing a piece-meal approach, moving smaller bills aimed at increasing interior enforcement, employer verification and border security.
Rep. Lee Terry, R-Neb., said he thinks those bills stand a shot at being approved when lawmakers return from recess, despite the calls by some hard-liners to reject any legislation that would provide a vehicle for ideas of the Senate.
The pressure has been mounting on Republicans to do something about what all seem to agree is a broken system.
In particular, those in favor of immigration legislation have been highlighting the cases of young people who were brought here by their parents years ago and are now trying to get a college education.
Rep. Steve King's recent comments continue to attract attention. The outspoken Republican and conservative firebrand from northwest Iowa said that for every valedictorian who is in the country illegally, there are a hundred drug smugglers with “calves the size of cantaloupes” from hauling marijuana.
Expect to hear more about those comments over the next few weeks. While King was widely criticized for his comments, he has continued to stand by them, saying immigration legislation proponents don't want to admit that he's right.
Those automatic, across-the-board budget cuts that resulted from the 2011 budget deal are threatening to wreak even more havoc on federal departments' budgets.
The Defense Department, in particular, is under the gun as half of the cuts fall on its shoulders. Hundreds of thousands of the department's civilian employees already are feeling the bite of furloughs.
Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel warned last week of the grim scenarios to come if Congress fails to turn off the $52 billion in additional sequester cuts at the Pentagon that are set to kick in with the start of the new fiscal year on Oct. 1.
Hagel said the country would have to make significant cuts to either military capability or capacity. In other words, the United States would be able to afford either a large enough force to deploy troops where needed or a force that is well-equipped with the latest weapons and technology — but not both.
Debt Ceiling and budget
As always, the White House and Congress will continue negotiating over dollars and cents.
The government is now operating under spending legislation that expires with the fiscal year on Sept. 30.
If Congress fails to pass a new spending measure by then, significant parts of the government could shut down. That's when families get turned away from national parks, federal offices are closed and the public generally faces all manner of aggravations from Washington gridlock. Neither side wants to get blamed for that.
Still, Terry described coming up with legislation to keep the lights on as a “heavy lift” given the gulf between the parties. The question of raising the debt ceiling will no doubt get caught up in those negotiations as well. The country is on track to break through the debt ceiling later this year. A previous deal to raise the debt ceiling is what gave us sequestration.