Full Slate of Issues Likely to Extend Lawmakers' Work Calendar

Climate activists float rooftops in the reflecting pool to mark the fourth anniversary of Hurricane Katrina. Lawmakers are working on a climate-change bill.
Climate activists float rooftops in the reflecting pool to mark the fourth anniversary of Hurricane Katrina. Lawmakers are working on a climate-change bill. (By Jahi Chikwendiu -- The Washington Post)
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By Ben Pershing
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Even as health-care reform dominates the agenda, Congress is confronting so many other issues that lawmakers could be kept at work through the first frost of winter.

In addition to health legislation, which remains the subject of intense negotiations on Capitol Hill, an ambitious climate-change bill awaits action in the Senate after having passed the House. And on Monday, President Obama delivered a high-profile address in New York designed to reinvigorate the effort to reform the financial regulatory system.

Important as those items are to the president and Democratic leaders, all are technically optional. Congress also has a busy slate of imperatives in the coming months: funding the entire government for fiscal 2010, as well as dealing with the abolition next year of the estate tax and the expiration of the policy that guides money for maintaining highways.

"I think it's a very full fall agenda," House Majority Leader Steny H. Hoyer (D-Md.) said in a recent interview, calling 2009 "one of the most issue-filled, substantive years" in his 28 years in Congress.

Congress is scheduled to adjourn at the end of October, but Jim Manley, spokesman for Senate Majority Leader Harry M. Reid (D-Nev.), raised the possibility that the "extremely ambitious schedule . . . will keep us here probably until December."

A large chunk of the remaining legislative calendar will be consumed by appropriations bills.

Two weeks before the fiscal year begins, the House has passed all 12 of its spending measures but the Senate has moved only four, and none has emerged from House-Senate conference negotiations. Congress will almost certainly have to pass a continuing resolution to keep the government operating.

"What we'd like to do is see if we can pass four or five conference reports prior to the end of September," Hoyer said. Then Congress would pass a short-term continuing resolution to keep the government funded and then, Democrats in both chambers hope, approve the remaining appropriations by the end of October.

Adhering to such a schedule would represent a victory for the majority party, given that the two chambers have tended in recent years to combine multiple appropriations measures into a large, messy omnibus bill.

Lawmakers also face a deadline on the Surface Transportation Act, commonly known as the highway bill; the current version of the measure will expire Sept. 30. Packed with infrastructure projects for every state, the bill always passes by a wide margin.

But while many interest groups have lobbied for a highway measure with funding for six years' worth of projects, it appears inevitable that a short-term extension will be passed this year instead.

"The real difference is whether we do an 18-month extension, which is what the Senate wants to do, or whether we do a full . . . reauthorization," Hoyer said, adding that the White House prefers the former.

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