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Posted at 06:00 AM ET, 06/25/2012

Supreme Court, Eric Holder, student loans and more: 5 big things to watch this week in Congress


(Joshua Roberts - Bloomberg)
It promises to be one of the busiest and most consequential weeks of the year for Congress as lawmakers eagerly anticipate the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision on the landmark 2010 health-care reform law and hope to reach agreement on two major policy decisions by Saturday night, when lower rates on federally subsidized student loans and a short-term highway bill are set to expire.

Meanwhile, House Republicans vowed Sunday to go through with plans to hold Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. in contempt of Congress, a move that would make him the first attorney general in U.S. history held in contempt of lawmakers.

Here’s a quick look at the five biggest issues facing Congress this week:

1) Supreme Court health-care decision: Whatever the high court decides about the health law likely will have more of an effect on President Obama’s political fortunes in the short term. But how lawmakers react to the ruling could set the tone for the months to come, both on the campaign trail and in the halls of Congress .

As The Post’s Chris Cillizza notes in his Monday Fix column, a court decision against the law likely would be seen as a repudiation of a major part of Obama’s first term in office. But it also would be used by congressional Republicans to argue that Democrats don’t deserve to retake the majority in either chamber so as to not lead the country into another ultimately fruitless debate over health-care reform or other issues.

Ahead of the ruling, House Speaker John A. Boehner (R-Ohio) warned his GOP colleagues that there should be no “spiking of the ball” if the Court rules against the health law. He outlined a messaging strategy for Republicans that emphasizes the rising costs of insurance and asserts that Obama’s health law has disrupted the economy and raised the costs of care.

“We will not celebrate at a time when millions of our fellow Americans remain out of work, the national debt has exceeded the size of our nation’s economy, health costs continue to rise, and small businesses are struggling to hire,” Boehner wrote in the memo, distributed to members last Thursday as they left Washington for the weekend.

House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) later responded with her own message to Democrats that reminded them of the benefits that she said Americans enjoy as a result of the health-care law.

“It is a sad day when Republicans continue to cheer against the health benefits Americans are already enjoying, while running out the clock on the economy and pursuing policies that are dangerous to a thriving middle class,” Pelosi said.

The contours of the health-care debate are set — now lawmakers just need to know what exactly they’ll be debating about.

2.) Eric Holder contempt vote: Despite assurances that they plan to move forward unless Holder turns over documents tied to an investigation of Operation “Fast and Furious,” GOP leaders haven’t said which day the vote will occur — leaving open the possibility that it could be scrapped or postponed. (But the main reason a vote hasn’t been scheduled yet is likely because Washington doesn’t know yet when the Supreme Court will rule on Issue #1 [see above].)

House Oversight and Government Reform Committee Chairman Darrell Issa (R-Calif.) said Sunday that there is no evidence thus far of White House involvement in the Justice Department’s decision to withhold information from the oversight panel — an admission that might raise questions about why the GOP insists on moving forward. But Issa once again criticized Obama for invoking executive privilege over some of the information sought by lawmakers.

If the vote proceeds, Democrats plan to pin Republicans as obsessed with a minor issue that is eating up valuable time and spending taxpayer dollars on the investigation.

3.) Student loan agreement: Senate negotiators are making steady progress toward a framework agreement to avert a doubling of student loan rates from 3.4 percent to 6.8 percent on Sunday, raising the costs of loans for an estimated 7 million students. The deal includes a proposal originally advanced by Senate Majority Leader Harry M. Reid (D-Nev.) to raise premiums paid by businesses for federal pension insurance — a plan that may be accepted by executives because it will be paired with new rules allowing them to lower pension liabilities, according to a top Senate Democratic aide.

A Senate Republican aide confirmed that members of both parties were engaged on the issue and that discussions have been productive. The aides asked for anonymity to discuss closed-door negotiations.

4.) Highway bill agreement: Next to giving final passage to a new farm bill later this year, passing a measure that provides federal transportation dollars to the states is arguably Congress’s best bet for passage of a major jobs bill this year. More than 3 million construction jobs are at risk — a key incentive to reach an agreement before November.

House and Senate negotiators are expected to continue working this week to strike a deal and some aides have suggested that a deal on how to pay for the measure might be tied to how lawmakers agree to pay for extending the student loans (see above).

The Senate has approved a bipartisan highway measure, but the House has yet to vote on a long-term highway deal, much to the chagrin of Boehner, who initially hoped to pass an ambitious five-year bill.

5.) Congressional politics: Big primary contests Tuesday night could unseat two legends with a combined 78 years of congressional service. In New York, Rep. Charles E. Rangel (D) faces a primary challenge from state Sen. Adriano Espaillat and in Utah, Sen. Orrin Hatch (R) appears poised to beat back a challenge from Dan Liljenquist. If they win, Rangel and Hatch will have beaten back upstart challenges from their flanks. If they lose, it’s because their challengers took advantage of shifting political and demographic trends.

Also worth watching: Lawmakers plan to hold a bipartisan joint House/Senate hearing on tax reform Thursday. And the Senate this week is slated to give final passage to the FDA User Bill, sending it to President Obama for his signature in a rare election-year display of bicameral bipartisanship.

Staff writers Paul Kane and Rosalind S. Helderman contributed to this report.

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