With the arrival of summer, congressional legislating gives way to campaigning

By Perry Bacon Jr.
Tuesday, June 22, 2010; A17

Democrats have a long list of national problems they say they want to solve. Almost two months ago, after Arizona passed a controversial immigration law, Sen. Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) said that "the urgency for immigration reform cannot be overstated." In his speech last week calling for a major energy bill, President Obama said it was important to "seize the moment."

But on Friday, the office of House Majority Leader Steny H. Hoyer (D-Md.), who directs the House's schedule, offered a telling signal of the declining legislative momentum of Democrats in Congress. It released a memo detailing the chamber's schedule for the rest of the year. House members, originally scheduled to spend five weeks of recess in their districts this summer, will get to leave Washington a week early -- Aug. 2 instead of Aug. 9.

The time is not likely to be spent on the beach. The schedule change could be dubbed "the fierce urgency of winning reelection." It will provide wary Democrats in contested districts one more week to campaign and one less week to be in Washington casting votes their GOP opponents could turn against this them.

But it also provides one less week for passing key measures, another sign that congressional Democrats might not have the stomach or the votes to push through much more controversial legislation. Congress is not likely to pass major bills in September and October, when members are even more focused on campaigning, although it could push through some bills in the few weeks that it meets after the elections.

"With unemployment near double-digits, no plan to offer a budget, and without a bill passed to give our troops fighting overseas the money they need, this seems an odd time for Democratic leaders to announce they want to do one less week of work here in Washington," said Michael Steel, a spokesman for House Minority Leader John A. Boehner (R-Ohio.)

Hoyer's spokeswoman, Katie Grant, said, "We want to give our members as much time as possible to be back working in their districts and hearing from constituents."

Republicans should welcome the extra recess, as they constantly complain Democrats are passing too many bills too quickly. And much of the legislation Democrats want to pass, such as changes to immigration laws, have little chance of getting through Congress because of ardent GOP opposition.

But the memo illustrates a new dynamic on Capitol Hill: The era of big legislation is nearing its end, at least until after the November elections. In the first 17 months of the Obama administration, Democrats pushed through a $787 billion stimulus package and massive bills to change the health-care and financial regulatory systems.

Now, Democrats, wary of the sticker shock of passing a bill that could be described as more than $3 trillion in spending, have virtually abandoned trying to pass a budget, a nonbinding document that has been approved in the House every year for the past two decades. A bill to extend unemployment benefits has been stalled for weeks, constantly shrinking in size to accommodate conservative Democrats wary of increasing the deficit.

Facing opposition from Republicans and some Democrats, liberal lawmakers have virtually abandoned pushing for changes to immigration laws or a New Deal-style program in which the federal government would give states and localities billions of dollars to hire unemployed people for public works jobs.

This legislative slowdown is not unusual; lawmakers in both parties usually start shifting toward campaign mode by the summer before an election.

And Democrats have not stopped trying to legislate completely. Senate Democrats are considering trying to pass some kind of energy legislation in the wake of the Gulf of Mexico oil spill, and lawmakers are working to resolve differences between the House and Senate versions of the regulatory reform bill so it can be signed by Obama.

But the election dynamic is changing the agenda, as some lawmakers think now is the time to focus on deficit reduction. The immigration legislation would not cost much in terms of direct federal outlays of money, and no money is appropriated through the budget. Both votes, however, would be politically challenging.

"A lot depends on whether Democrats collectively make a judgment they are going to be better off making a case based on the extraordinary output in Congress. You can make the case; the best thing to say is, 'We acted, we did something on energy, on the economy, on Wall Street,' " said Norman Ornstein at the American Enterprise Institute. "But there is going to be a substantial sentiment saying, 'Enough already. Anything we do will put us more in the crosshairs.' "

Ornstein predicted that Democrats will push through an energy bill despite the wariness and said that they might regret it if they don't try.

"This is your cliched 'window of opportunity,' " he said. "If you lose 30 seats in the House or you lose the House entirely [after November], you won't be talking about going too far. You won't be able to get anything done."

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