By Paul Kane and Perry Bacon Jr.
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, December 17, 2009; A04
The House pushed through a last-minute flurry of legislation Wednesday, including a $636 billion Pentagon funding bill, a short-term rise in the nation's debt limit, and an extension of unemployment and health benefits for millions of jobless Americans.
But Democrats put off until next year some of the thorniest political issues facing the chamber. While the House passed on party lines a largely symbolic $150 billion job-creation bill, that legislation has virtually no chance of seeing action in the Senate this year and was a reflection of Democrats' belief that addressing the nation's unemployment crisis will have to be their top priority when they return to business in January. Likewise, the vote to temporarily raise the debt limit by $290 billion allowed House leaders to kick down the road tougher questions about deficit spending that have become a focal point for Republican attacks.
As the Senate struggled to bring the debate over health care to a close and turned temporarily to consideration of the must-pass Pentagon bill, the House effectively finished its business for the year. Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) said she told her colleagues at a morning gathering that the legislative decks were almost cleared so Democrats could focus on the economy next year to gear up for the 2010 midterm elections.
"I don't know if you've noticed, but I'm in campaign mode," Pelosi told reporters at a year-end briefing in her office suite overlooking the Mall.
Pelosi said she does not think "there's any risk" that Democrats could lose their House majority, currently set at 258 Democrats to 177 Republicans, but acknowledged a tough campaign ahead because "unemployment is big" and recent electoral successes have placed many Democrats in politically conservative terrain. "It's really challenging to sustain, but that's our goal, to sustain our majority, and we'll have a strong majority," she predicted.
Congressional Republicans continued their criticism of the Democratic stewardship of the economy. Republicans called for using the leftover funds from the financial bailout to pay down the national debt, which has climbed to more than $12 trillion this year. "Democrats in this new stimulus bill are simply voting to extend policies that have failed to create jobs, failed to get the American economy back on its feet," said Rep. Mike Pence (R-Ind.), who ranks third in the House GOP leadership.
The window to pass major legislation usually narrows in an election year as incumbents demand more time back home to campaign. This leaves Democrats just a few months in 2010 to prioritize their agenda, which will be topped by putting the final touches on health-care legislation and ongoing economic recovery efforts. The narrow timeframe -- and the political calculus involved with such controversial items -- could jeopardize efforts to curb global warming and a push by liberals to change immigration laws to allow some illegal immigrants a pathway to citizenship.
On the economy, Democrats remain divided. Aides said Senate Democrats will construct an alternative early next year to the $154 billion House stimulus package approved Wednesday. Even though it was little more than an opening ante in the fight ahead, the House plan barely passed, 217 to 212, as 38 Democrats joined Republicans in opposition.
The Pelosi-backed bill would provide aid to states to prevent them from having to lay off teachers and other public employees and billions to support rebuilding highways and other infrastructure projects.
The lingering jobs debate reflects the length and depth of the recession, as Congress heads into its third-straight winter of debating a 12-figure attempt to boost to the economy. The first stimulus bill, passed in an unusually bipartisan atmosphere in February 2008, cost $152 billion, followed by the February 2009 bill carrying a tab of $787 billion, which gained little Republican support. If approved, the current House legislation would push congressional stimulus efforts to more than $1 trillion in two years.
The politics of debt played out in the House on Wednesday when the chamber agreed to lift the federal debt ceiling by $290 billion, setting a new threshold of $12.4 trillion in government borrowing. The bill also passed narrowly, 218 to 214, as 39 Democrats opposed the provision along with all 175 Republicans who voted.
"Let's get really serious about cutting spending, and the way we start is by saying no to increasing the debt limit," said House Minority Leader John A. Boehner (R-Ohio).
That measure still needs to be approved by the Senate, which may be forced into a rare session between Christmas and New Year's Day because the health-care debate could consume all of next week.
Congressional Democrats said increasing the ceiling is necessary to keep the government going. The move came after Democratic leaders this week discarded a plan that would have increased the debt limit by more than $1.8 trillion.
Pelosi abandoned the long-term debt increase in the face of pressure from conservative Democrats who had been demanding a law that would bar Congress from new spending or tax cuts unless the cost was offset by spending cuts or revenue increases.
The final battle is likely to play out in February, when the debt limit is likely to be bumped up against again, requiring another fix.
The defense spending bill -- which includes more than $100 billion for wars in Iraq and Afghanistan -- also included temporary extensions of several provisions that were due to expire at the end of the year, including unemployment and health-care benefits for the jobless and provisions of the Patriot Act.