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From Highways To Trade Deal, What Big Business Wants By Christmas

Temperatures soar, flowers bloom and the sun rises early. On these long summer days, there still seems to be plenty of time for achieving your 2015 goals.

But not if you are a business lobbyist. For you, time is short.

Here's what you want by Christmas: a Pacific Rim trade deal; an updated No Child Left Behind Act; revival of the Export-Import Bank; long-term highway funding and a completed federal budget.

Here's what's worrying you: A calendar that has the House working only eight more days before the summer recess begins on July 31. The Senate leaves on Aug. 7. Lawmakers don't return until Sept. 8.

And then the fall schedule includes lengthy breaks for Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur, Columbus Day, Veterans Day, Thanksgiving, Hanukkah and Christmas.

So it's sprint time now.

During the year's second half, "there are always too many priorities and not enough days on the calendar," said Bill Miller, senior vice president at Business Roundtable, a lobbying powerhouse that represents corporate chief executives.

The time gets particularly tight if the following year involves a distracting presidential election. "You have to give your focus to the bills that have a chance of passage" before the primaries begin in 2016, he said.

Despite the crunch, Miller says Congress can deliver on business' top priorities, even if the process is ugly.

Take the Highway Trust Fund legislation. Funding highways and bridges used to be a routine, bipartisan exercise. But these days, partisan splits between the Democratic-held White House and Republican-controlled Congress — and even between the House and Senate — make passage of transportation legislation extremely difficult.

So here we are, with highway money running out after July 31. The House has passed only a five-month patch, but the Senate is still racing to put together a plan to fund highways for up to six years.

Oddly enough, that also brings us to the renewal of the Export-Import Bank charter, which the Business Roundtable vigorously supports. The bank's charter expired June 30, but it still has enough funding to limp along until September. Now some lawmakers are trying to attach the bank's renewal to the highway bill.

The outcome of all that horse trading is unclear, but prospects for both a highway bill and a bank renewal may be brightening.

And education reform legislation now looks possible. The House and Senate have each passed legislation to update the No Child Left Behind Act. The two chambers now must reconcile their different versions. Miller says businesses are pushing hard for approval of a final bill because employers need educators to solve "the skills gap."

Perhaps the biggest looming business issue is the Trans-Pacific Partnership. Once the Obama administration wraps up negotiations with 11 other nations, it will present the trade deal to Congress for approval. Miller said that since Congress already has given the White House "fast track" authority, the trade pact would need only a simple majority vote, making it likely will pass.

So what could go wrong for business? Two possibilities.

No. 1, Republicans will try to block the Iranian nuclear deal negotiated by the Obama administration, and that could stir up partisan rancor and use up floor time. "Remember that Iran will be huge and will take up most of September," said William Frymoyer, a lobbyist with Stewart and Stewart law firm.

No. 2, the 2015 federal budget ends on Sept. 30 and Congress must pass a new one, as well as raise the nation's debt ceiling this fall to allow more borrowing. Those fiscal tasks can be very time consuming — and could knock everything else off the calendar. Or they could get done quickly in late September should congressional leaders roll everything into one gigantic legislative package — a "monster omnibus," as Miller calls it.

Other big-ticket items for business include broad tax reform, immigration updates and entitlement-program changes. But until voters have elected a new president and another Congress, "the likelihood is very small" for such key issues to get serious attention, he said.

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Marilyn Geewax is a contributor to NPR.