By Ben Pershing
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, December 9, 2009
The packed congressional schedule means action on the bulk of President Obama's job-creation proposals might be deferred to 2010, as the House and Senate race to complete a host of key bills by year's end.
Funding for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the federal government's ability to borrow money, and several expiring laws and tax breaks depend on Congress completing complicated legislative maneuvers in the next three weeks. The jobs bill also hangs in the balance as leaders weigh how quickly they can deliver a measure to the White House after Obama's call Tuesday for a comprehensive package. House leaders are debating whether they can push a jobs bill through this month, while the Senate is more likely to tackle the subject in January.
"We need to do the jobs bill right," House Majority Leader Steny H. Hoyer (D-Md.) said Tuesday. "We need to do it soon, but doing it in the next 10 days is not necessarily essential if we do it . . . within the next 30 to 40 days."
Top House and Senate Democrats huddled Tuesday evening to discuss the timing of a jobs package without reaching a final decision. Much depends on the Senate schedule, which is being monopolized by the health-care debate.
"It's all about what fits and what the Senate can do," said Rep. George Miller (D-Calif.). "Obviously, it's not going to all be in one bill."
In his economic address Tuesday, Obama asked for increased aid to small businesses, infrastructure spending and safety-net spending on unemployment benefits, COBRA health insurance and aid to state and local governments. Those priorities roughly track those of Democrats on the Hill, and the safety-net spending is considered so crucial by leaders that it might move this month even if the rest of Obama's proposals have to wait.
Hoyer offered cost estimates ranging from $75 billion to $150 billion for the package, and congressional Democrats share the president's desire to use unspent money from the federal bailout program, known as the Troubled Assets Relief Program, to pay for it. Republicans strongly criticized that idea.
"This proposal is completely wrongheaded, but it's perfectly illustrative of the way Democrats in Congress have been dealing with taxpayer money all year -- by throwing it at one problem after another without much regard for the consequences," said Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.).
Congress's remaining work falls into two categories -- unfinished appropriations bills and everything else. The endgame depends on the second category hitching a ride on the first. Seven appropriations bills for fiscal 2010 have yet to become law, and the House plans to package them into two "minibus" measures instead of one huge omnibus. The first is expected to move this week, combining six bills that would include funding for several Cabinet agencies, military construction, foreign aid and the D.C. budget.
Next, the House would take the remaining annual spending bill -- for the Pentagon -- and use it as the vehicle for unrelated items, possibly including the jobs bill. The trickiest add-on will be legislation to increase the $12.1 trillion federal debt limit. Several moderate Democrats have said they won't vote for the increase unless Congress creates a bipartisan commission on reducing the debt.
Other possible additions to the defense measure include expiring provisions of the USA Patriot Act, a variety of tax breaks and legislation to block a cut in payments to doctors under Medicare. The bill that governs spending on highways and infrastructure is also set to expire. The exact combination of add-ons remains in flux.
Senate Majority Leader Harry M. Reid (D-Nev.) has vowed to keep his chamber in session nights and weekends through Christmas to get a health-care bill passed. The longer that debate goes, the less time will be left to handle the legislation passed by the House.