Congress's Return Adds Another Facet to Elections

By Jonathan Weisman and Paul Kane
Washington Post Staff Writers
Sunday, September 7, 2008

A suddenly unsettled presidential race will have a new variable added to the mix this week: Congress.

Lawmakers return to the Capitol tomorrow for a quick session loaded with political traps and minefields, for each other and for presidential nominees Barack Obama and John McCain. These include offshore oil drilling and economic stimulus, with a possible health-care surprise.

First up will be energy. Republicans spent their August recess demanding an "all of the above" strategy to lower gasoline prices and decrease dependence on imported oil, pushing legislation that opens the outer continental shelf to drilling and funds alternative energy and conservation. McCain, after years of opposing offshore oil exploration, joined the fray, and Republican conventioneers last week took to chanting "drill, baby, drill."

House Democratic leaders are preparing legislation they say will call the Republicans' bluff.

House Democrats are eyeing a measure that would open the coasts of Virginia, North Carolina, South Carolina and Georgia to drilling outside a 100-mile buffer zone, provided the plan is approved by the state legislatures and governors in the Southeast, Democratic aides said Friday. Florida is likely to be exempted.

The package would also include the extension of tax breaks for wind, solar and biofuels projects, funding for alternative-energy research, and additional conservation measures, financed in large part by the repeal of tax breaks for oil companies and a demand for higher royalties. For environmentalists, Democrats will include a provision mandating that a set percentage of a utility's electricity generation come from renewable energy sources.

Republicans said most of them would have no problem turning down the deal, which they believe does not go nearly far enough in opening the coast to oil exploration.

"To put an artificial limit on [drilling] is ridiculous," said Rep. Jack Kingston (R), who represents coastal Georgia. "Oil could be right off the shore, or it could be 500 miles off."

But there are fears that the measure could pick up significant GOP support, from Florida Republicans eager to show they support expanded oil drilling but leery of rigs off the Sunshine State's beaches, and from other Republicans hoping to show action on the issue.

Next on Congress's agenda is likely to be a second economic stimulus package, totaling $50 billion in the form of money for infrastructure projects, relief for state governments struggling with rising Medicaid costs, home heating assistance for the Northeast and upper Midwest, and disaster relief for the Gulf Coast and the Midwestern flood zone. The measure, not yet written, could also include a temporary expansion of food stamp benefits.

The idea would be to dare Republicans vowing to cut government spending to oppose such a package in the midst of rising unemployment.

"With the unemployment rate at a five-year high, it is clear that we must take immediate action to strengthen our economy," House Speaker Nancy Pelosi said. "The New Direction Congress will soon act on a second economic stimulus package and a comprehensive energy plan that will create new American jobs, invest in renewables, increase domestic production, make America more energy independent, and break free of the failed Bush economic policies that John McCain and Republicans in Congress have rubber-stamped for far too long."

Republicans are planning a counteroffensive, pushing a more expansive energy plan and demanding a vote one way or the other. With Congress's approval ratings even lower than President Bush's, GOP leaders believe they have the credibility to dismiss Democratic measures and push their own. It is Obama who faces the choice of siding with Pelosi, whom Republicans have painted as a liberal partisan, or making good on his pledge to find bipartisan solutions.

After the House takes up its energy legislation, the Senate is likely to move its package the week of Sept. 15. Democrats there are expected to take up some version of legislation resembling what a bipartisan group of 16 senators hashed out this summer.

But aides on both sides of the aisle are pessimistic that the legislation can pass, because Republicans are demanding a straight up-or-down vote on more offshore drilling, and Democrats are accusing them of wanting to block compromise to instead use drilling as a campaign issue for McCain.

"There is still no path forward. They appear to have made a political decision," said Jim Manley, spokesman for Senate Majority Leader Harry M. Reid (D-Nev.).

Republicans believe they have a political ace in the hole, because Congress must pass a large omnibus spending bill that will cover funding for most of the federal government into 2009. Democrats expect to include the annual moratorium on offshore drilling in that bill, but Republicans will try to offer an amendment stripping it -- a vote they believe they would win.

Reid could try to use a parliamentary move to forbid amendments, which would probably provoke a Republican backlash that could lead to a filibuster or a Bush veto.

"As always, accomplishments in the Senate come as a result of bipartisan cooperation -- not partisan attempts to jam political bills across the floor without a serious debate. As we've seen all year, the my-way-or-the-highway approach has only resulted in failure for the majority; success only comes when they offer a serious approach to legislating -- rather than letting the [Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee] try to run the Senate," said Don Stewart, spokesman for Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.).

Such a showdown could lead to a partial shutdown of the federal government, a gamble that some House Republicans are endorsing.

Democrats also hope to bring up a trio of bills designed to embarrass McCain and congressional Republicans, including extra home heating funds that are critical in the swing states of New Hampshire and Minnesota, where Democrats are also trying to oust incumbent GOP senators. They will also bring up a bill calling for equal pay for women in the workplace, which Republicans have blocked, as a way to try to boost Obama's standing with many of the women who sided with Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (N.Y.) in the Democratic primary.

But Republicans said they will force Reid into a parliamentary logjam if he brings up purely politically motivated legislation, threatening to make him spend as much as a week on such legislation rather than dealing with issues such as energy.

"Everybody will know a week ahead of time that it's a political vote to hit McCain," Stewart said.

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