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Congress returns from recess to even more of the same

By Shailagh Murray
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, July 12, 2010; A02

Congress will return this week from the July 4th recess to a pile of unfinished business.

Yes, the same might be said of every Congress returning from every recess since lawmakers wore wigs and tights. But this time it could be a big problem, especially for the party in power.

When Barack Obama took office and the Democrats took control of Washington, they made ambitious promises about how much they'd get done, with or without Republican help. Now, with relatively few working days left before the November midterm elections (in part because lawmakers granted themselves another long break beginning at the end of July), they might not be able to convince skeptical, frustrated voters that they delivered -- and that they deserve to stay in charge.

Bills to extend unemployment benefits and impose new regulations on the financial industry have yet to be resolved. An emergency war funding bill, loaded up with unrelated spending, faces a White House veto threat. The Senate must still approve Elena Kagan's nomination to the Supreme Court.

Add to that coming debates over campaign finance legislation, long-awaited food-safety rules and a contentious defense authorization bill that would end the "don't ask, don't tell" policy on gays in the military.

As if that's not enough, the Senate could add to the list. Sensing opportunity in the public's outrage over the BP oil spill, Democrats are considering reviving the dormant climate-change debate. Majority Leader Harry M. Reid (D-Nev.) is assembling legislation that would expand alternative energy incentives and overhaul offshore drilling standards, while requiring BP to assume full liability for damages in the Gulf of Mexico. If Reid decides to do it, the bill could reach the Senate floor as soon as July 19.

One way to tell whether a climate bill is more than an election-year compromise: if it seeks to impose significant restrictions on greenhouse gases, along the lines of the "cap and trade" system that was included in the House legislation passed in June 2009.

Those caps led to fears of rising energy bills among members of both parties, especially in the coal-dependent Midwest, and would do so again this year, resulting in a bitter fight just weeks before the elections. (Translation: Don't bet on it.) Instead, Senate Democrats are weighing a diluted version that would apply only to power plants; aides said even that could be dropped, depending on the resistance it meets.

One obstacle for Democrats should be resolved shortly. West Virginia Gov. Joe Manchin III (D), is expected this week to appoint a Democratic interim senator to fill the vacancy left by the death of Sen. Robert C. Byrd. That would give Reid the 60th vote he needs to pass the Wall Street legislation and the unemployment benefits extension. But Democrats are not counting on Byrd's replacement as a "yes" vote on climate change, given West Virginia's mining roots.

The packed July agenda provides both parties with opportunities to draw contrasts for midterm voters. Only a few GOP senators are expected to support the Wall Street overhaul bill, a package of financial regulatory changes aimed at preventing another economic collapse. Three Republicans supported the final version of the legislation when it cleared the House on June 30. GOP opponents say the bill unduly restricts an industry that thrives on risk and raises prospects of future federal bailouts. Republican leaders hope that the coming month will be much like the last, a clutter of conflict and gridlock. Democrats repeatedly failed to renew popular business tax breaks, extend jobless benefits, reverse a Medicare payment cut to doctors, and provide emergency assistance to cash-strapped states.

They even faltered on war funding, one of the few issues with bipartisan support. Late on the night of July 1, just before leaving town for a 10-day break, the House approved $33 billion to send an additional 30,000 U.S. troops to Afghanistan. To overcome liberal resistance, Democratic leaders attached $10 billion in aid to school districts to prevent teacher layoffs -- paid for in part by cuts to Obama's prized "Race to the Top" education reform initiative. The White House responded with a veto threat.

The war funding bill's fate is unclear. Senate Republicans have warned that they will filibuster the House version, which also includes funding for Pell grants and new energy projects, pushing the price tag to $80 billion. Although Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates said the funds for Afghanistan are urgently needed, Reid's spokesman, Jim Manley, said a resolution could be weeks away.

Don Stewart, spokesman for Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), said one bright spot for Democrats could be the energy bill, provided the party drops the emissions cap and keeps the focus on alternative energy development and gulf-related provisions.

"It's going to come down to a big decision, a bill that can pass versus a bill that can't pass," Stewart said. "But if this month looks like last month, they're going to get Kagan and not a whole lot more."

Manley said provisions under consideration include incentives for businesses and homeowners to increase energy efficiency; expanded financing options for clean energy investments, including low-carbon power generation; and improvements to the nation's electricity grid to bring more renewable power to market. The bill also would include measures to expedite the oil cleanup in the gulf and tighten regulations on deepwater drilling.

But as many as six Democrats from conservative states could defect, Senate aides said. For Democratic leaders to pass the bill and declare victory in time for the election, they would have to persuade at least that many sympathetic Republicans to defy their leaders and vote with the other side. It's a formidable challenge, to say the least, and one that goes to show why Congress is forever returning to Washington to a pile of unfinished business.

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