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Congress races to tackle VA, border crisis and more before recess

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Speaker of the House John Boehner, Thursday, July 17, 2014 and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, Tuesday, July 15, 2014, on Capitol Hill in Washington. (AP)

That sound you hear is the buzz of Congress actually trying to get something done.

Lawmakers have kicked into action over the last few days, after a year otherwise marked by partisan sniping, hearings and a dearth of legislative activity even by congressional standards.

The motivating factor? August recess is set to begin at the end of the week, and it’s helped focus lawmakers on a handful of priority items.

The most popular, it appears – and most likely to pass before recess – is a $17 billion package addressing some of the many problems at the Department of Veterans Affairs.

Lawmakers are trying to tackle a barrel-full of other crises – from the influx of illegal immigrant children along the southern border to wildfires burning across the American West to a rapidly depleting national highway fund. But right now, it’s unclear whether the House and Senate can get on the same page before August.

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid acknowledged Tuesday that “when we come back after this recess, we have lots to do.”

But even Reid, who revels in firing rhetorical bombs at his GOP rivals from the floor, acknowledged some bipartisan cooperation in recent days.

First up is the VA reform bill. The House is planning to move ahead on a newly struck deal Wednesday, fast-tracking the $17 billion bill for a vote in the afternoon. The Senate could follow suit later in the day.

The bipartisan bill is Congress’ answer to a problem that received bipartisan attention: the scandal over veterans enduring long wait times at VA facilities, and VA staffers covering up their records to hide the delays.

The legislation would send billions into the system to help veterans seek outside care when necessary, to help hire more doctors and medical staff and to lease new clinics across the country. The size of the bill is still causing some consternation among fiscal conservatives, though.

“It looks very weak financially and it is very troubling the bill is moving forward without a score,” Sen. Jeff Sessions, R-Ala., told Fox News, adding, “It’s bad policy for Congress to jam bills through without members understanding what’s at stake.”

Still, the bill is less expensive than an earlier version.

While the VA bill could get a strong showing of bipartisan support, the next item on the House docket Wednesday is virtually a Republican-only endeavor – a proposed lawsuit against President Obama over his use of executive actions on ObamaCare.

The House is expected to take up the resolution late Wednesday. Democrats have condemned the move as an “absurd” stunt, but have also used the lawsuit resolution to accuse Republicans of setting the stage for an impeachment push against Obama – which Republicans say is equally absurd.

“We have no plans to impeach the president. We have no future plans. Listen, it's all a scam, started by Democrats at the White House,” House Speaker John Boehner said.

Even if the House and Senate pass the VA legislation, though, several other items are still on the table.

One of the biggest is legislation to address the surge of illegal immigrant minors. The Senate on Wednesday advanced a Democrat-backed, $2.5 billion spending bill, but it’s unclear whether that has enough support to even come to a final vote. 

House Republicans are meanwhile pushing forward on a separate bill that clocks in at well under a billion dollars – far less than Obama is requesting.

The differences have led to intensifying bickering between House and Senate leaders.

Reid on Tuesday suggested that if the House passes some kind of bill, negotiators from both chambers could sit down and hammer out “comprehensive immigration reform.”

That drew an immediate rebuke from Boehner, who said this emergency border bill is not the vehicle for a comprehensive immigration package.  

“Senator Reid, embarrassed that he cannot strong-arm the Senate into passing the blank check President Obama demanded, is making a deceitful and cynical attempt to derail the House’s common-sense solution,” Boehner said in a statement. “So let me be as clear as I can be with Senator Reid: the House of Representatives will not take up the Senate immigration reform bill or accept it back from the Senate in any fashion.”

Aside from the border measures, some lawmakers – including Reid – are trying to weave in funding to fight western wildfires and funding to shore up Israel’s Iron Dome missile defense system amid the war with Hamas in the Gaza Strip.

House Republicans’ border bill does not include those two items. But Reid said Tuesday he still wants the supplemental spending bill to address all three.

“That's my goal,” he said. “If not, we'll have to look at different alternatives.”

Meanwhile, the Senate voted Tuesday to fund the federal highway program through December – but the Senate version is still at odds with the House version, so it’s unclear whether lawmakers can agree on a common bill before the recess. Regardless, lawmakers will have to return to the issue after the recess to find a long-term solution.

Fox News’ Chad Pergram contributed to this report.