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Roll Call

Democrats Hope Recess Recharges Their Agenda

Senate Democrats had grand plans for the month of July, but delays on both health care and climate change legislation have forced them to put off all their heavy lifting for what promises to be a very long fall.

Still, Democrats say they leave town this week for the monthlong August recess buoyed by the things they were able to accomplish and with a renewed sense of optimism about the health care debate.

“We’re heading home with our heads held high because we’ve done some good work,” Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) said Thursday.

The last two things Senate Democrats did before rushing to the airport Thursday night was confirm Sonia Sotomayor as the first Hispanic Supreme Court justice and pass a $2 billion extension of the popular “cash for clunkers” auto trade-in program.

Even with a $787 billion economic stimulus, an “equal pay” bill, and an expansion of children’s health insurance under their belt already this year, the next five months are likely to be the true defining moments for the legacy of the 111th Congress — and that includes the normally sleepy August recess.

Democrats spent the past week preparing themselves to use the recess to recapture control of the health care debate, which polls show has been rapidly losing public support. The health care tutorials they received included tips on how to deal with the unruly crowds of protesters that have been popping up at town-hall meetings and other events around the country.

One senior Senate Democratic aide said lawmakers are leaving town feeling optimistic largely because of the leadership’s decision to hold two special Member meetings -- one on health care policy and one on public relations talking points – along with the White House’s commitment to use the president’s bully pulpit to reinforce the Members’ message.

“They got more information, and they feel better about it,” said the aide.

The White House swooped down on the Senate twice this week – once bringing the entire Democratic Conference over for a presidential pep talk and once having senior adviser and campaign-guru David Axelrod come to the Hill to outline the message strategy. In doing so, the president and Senate leaders tried to downplay the intraparty rift over whether to create a public health insurance plan and emphasize health insurance reform issues — such as free preventive health care and the elimination of pre-existing condition clauses — on which most Democrats, and even some Republicans, agree.

“My sense is people are going to go back to their states with a high degree of confidence about what we stand for and about what most Americans believe in,” Sen. Chris Dodd (D-Conn.) said. “So I’m pretty confident that we come back in the fall and [we’ll] be able to move forward.” Dodd led the Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee’s two-and-a-half-week markup of its health care measure as a stand-in for the ailing chairman, Sen. Edward Kennedy (D-Mass.).

But the Senate will likely have plenty of time to contemplate whether they can move forward on health care, given no bill is likely to make an appearance on the Senate floor until the end of September at the earliest. The source of most of the angst over health care in the Senate — a bipartisan group of six Finance Committee members – have agreed to try to meet a Sept. 15 deadline to hammer out a compromise bill. If they don’t, Finance Chairman Max Baucus (D-Mont.), who is leading the negotiations, has essentially conceded that Democratic leaders will attempt to pass a partisan bill using arcane budget rules, known as reconciliation, to prevent any health care measure from being filibustered.

Even if the six Finance negotiators reach a deal, that measure will still have to undergo a tricky merger with the HELP Committee bill, which was passed on a party-line vote. GOP Finance negotiators — ranking member Chuck Grassley (Iowa), Olympia Snowe (Maine) and Mike Enzi (Wyo.) — have been trying to get Reid to agree to preserve whatever agreement they devise when he merges the two measures, but liberal Democrats have been counting on the HELP bill to trump Finance provisions with which they disagree. The HELP bill would create a public health insurance plan, while the Finance talks have centered around establishing a government-sponsored, nonprofit health insurance cooperative system to compete with private insurers in the same way a public plan would.

While Senators bide their time in September waiting for the health care dust to settle into a workable plan, Reid said Thursday he hopes to complete four more of the 12 annual spending bills. The Senate has already passed four. The statutory deadline for completion of appropriations measures is Sept.30 — the end of the fiscal year — and Congress will almost certainly have to pass a short-term, stopgap spending bill to keep some government agencies funded until a permanent measure can be enacted.

Meanwhile, Reid has set a Sept. 28 deadline for six Senate committees to complete work on a climate change bill that may or may not include a controversial cap-and-trade system for controlling greenhouse gas emissions. In June, the House narrowly passed a cap-and-trade bill, an indication that getting a filibuster-proof 60-vote majority in the Senate may be nearly impossible, some Democratic aides have suggested.

Indeed, Senators and Democratic aides have warned that the climate debate promises to fracture the party even more than talks over health care have this summer. But that is not expected to come to the floor until after consideration of a health care measure — a scenario that could mean the global warming fight won’t be in full force until late October or November.

But lest anyone think Congress will wrap up by Thanksgiving, Democrats have been warning for months that sleigh bells will be ringing before they wrap up for the year.

Sen. Kent Conrad (D-N.D.) in July predicted what leaders have tacitly acknowledged: “Congress is going to be in session until Christmas Eve.”

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