Up Next: More Partisan Fights

Posted April 10, 2009 at 5:50pm

Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) is looking to pack the Senate schedule with some legislative heavy lifts in the five weeks before Memorial Day, a move that’s likely to expose many of the same partisan fault lines that have bedeviled the chamber for much of the year.

The Senate’s next work period, starting April 20, may not include behemoth bills like health care reform or climate change legislation, but partisan battles are sure to erupt over measures such as President Barack Obama’s housing foreclosure mitigation plan, the 2010 budget conference report and an $83.4 billion war spending bill.

“We are going to continue efforts to strengthen the economy, while laying the groundwork for the major debates to come on health care and global warming,— one Senate Democratic leadership aide said. Democratic leaders are “confident— that they will be able to reach a compromise with the House on the $3.5 trillion budget blueprint before Memorial Day, the aide added.

However, the aide cautioned that the pace of the schedule largely depends on the willingness of Republicans to agree to act expeditiously on all agenda items, including Obama’s executive branch nominations.

Senate Democratic aides said the last week of April could play host to Obama’s initiative to allow bankruptcy judges to rewrite the terms of primary home mortgages. Currently, judges can only force renegotiations of secondary mortgages or those for farms.

However, Majority Whip Dick Durbin (D-Ill.), who has spearheaded the effort in the Senate, has not yet secured the 60 votes needed to overcome a near-certain GOP filibuster. Durbin has been hoping to broker a deal with major lending companies over the recess to try to jump-start the stalled bill.

Even if Durbin succeeds in crafting a deal with banks and credit unions, it’s unclear whether that will actually attract the two to three Republicans that he needs to protect the bill on the floor.

Meanwhile, the Senate will be wrestling with what could be its last major war supplemental, given Democrats’ plans to incorporate funding for Iraq and Afghanistan into the regular Defense appropriations process from now on.

Though Senate Democrats said they do not expect major stumbles on their side, Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) issued a warning shot to Reid and appropriators on Friday that Republicans cannot be counted on as automatic “aye— votes for the war spending bill.

“In the consideration of this year’s security supplemental bill, it is imperative that this Democrat-led Congress resist the temptation to use this must-pass bill to leverage additional and extraneous spending, and focus instead on committing resources strictly for the defense of our nation,— McConnell said in a statement.

Because budget votes are almost always a party-line affair, the budget conference report will be no different in the Senate. Republicans are likely to put the pressure on centrist Democrats to reject any measure that looks to protect a future Obama health care reform bill from filibuster, using fast-track budget rules known as reconciliation.

Many Democratic moderates have said they absolutely oppose using reconciliation for climate change legislation, but they have been much less strident when it comes to using the procedure to protect health care reform.

The budget that passed the Senate on April 2 did not include such rules, but the House’s version does for health care and education programs.

Senate aides said there is no agreement yet to use reconciliation in the final budget deal, but it appears that Senate leaders are leaning heavily toward agreeing to the House version to ensure that they can pass health care this year without having to drum up 60 votes to overcome a likely filibuster. Reid and other leaders also see the likely September deadline for reconciliation action as a means for Finance Chairman Max Baucus (D-Mont.) to get Republicans to the negotiating table on a bipartisan bill.

Last week, Senate Democratic Conference Vice Chairman Charles Schumer (N.Y.) said as much on MSNBC’s “The Rachel Maddow Show.—

“I know that we’re certainly going to give Sen. Baucus … a chance to pass health care legislation with 60 votes,— Schumer said. “But it would be my view that if they can’t do that by a certain time — August or so — we then move to reconciliation, where we need 51. And it’s going to be hard enough to pass national health care with 51 votes.—

The first week back, however, the Senate is likely to start off with a measure that would extend anti-fraud laws to independent mortgage brokers and authorize more money for law enforcement to go after financial scams.

Reid may also try to schedule action on a major rewrite of banking regulation laws, a railroad antitrust bill or a measure to allow the Food and Drug Administration to regulate tobacco products.

All three measures are controversial and would likely run into delays, if not outright filibusters, by Republicans. So it’s unclear whether Reid could actually squeeze those debates into the schedule.