Hill Scrambles for Recess Wins

Posted May 18, 2009 at 6:31pm

With Congress racing to the Memorial Day break, Democratic leaders are scrambling to give their Members something significant to crow about.

Democrats worked at a breakneck speed over the first 100 days of the Obama administration to pass big-ticket items such as a $787 billion stimulus package and a $3.4 trillion budget blueprint. Passage of both those items came in the runup to the February and April recesses, respectively. This time, however, Congressional leaders have only a few items to arm their Members with as they head home for the weeklong break that kicks off on Friday.

With that in mind, Democrats are hoping to make the most of the next few days, with an eye toward at least clearing a few consumer protection bills and a troop-funding bill while moving forward on clean-energy legislation.

Democrats say they’d like to finish up work on the war supplemental spending bill this week, if Senate Republicans cooperate. Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) is expected to move to the Senate’s $91.3 billion version today after completing work on a credit card overhaul.

If Republicans play ball and the Senate passes its bill by Wednesday, lawmakers could rush through a conference committee and try to clear it through both chambers by Friday. The House passed its $96.7 billion supplemental last week.

“We would very much like to get it done and clear the decks for June,— a Senate Democratic aide said. “We have a lot of appropriations bills that we’d like to get done in regular order.—

At any rate, the floor fight over the supplemental will give Republicans a chance to put Democrats on the spot with amendments challenging President Barack Obama’s plans to close the prison at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba.

The bill includes $80 million for closing the detention facility, but $50 million would be contingent on the administration submitting plans to Congress on what to do with the detainees. The House’s version of the bill didn’t include the funding after Appropriations Chairman David Obey (D-Wis.) complained about the lack of a detailed plan. Republicans and some Democrats have also expressed concerns about bringing the prisoners to U.S. soil.

The House bill also added billions to free up space for more spending in 2010 regular appropriations bills — a move the Senate did not follow. And the Senate included $5 billion for the International Monetary Fund, which Obey omitted.

Although Obama has pushed to get a bill to his desk quickly, the prospects for lightning-fast negotiations are complicated by the fact that House Democrats need GOP votes. Some 51 Democrats opposed the spending plan during last week’s vote.

House Republican leaders have resisted adding the IMF funding to the bill and strongly oppose the Guantánamo closure.

A senior Republican aide noted the differences between the two chambers’ bills and said it’s hard to imagine an agreement being reached this week.

“The challenges are so big on this that they should accept reality, leave early and finish after recess,— this aide said.

The supplemental notwithstanding, Democrats are eyeing several other bills to send to Obama before the weeklong break: an anti-fraud bill that includes a commission to look at the financial meltdown, an overhaul of the credit card industry, a housing bill and a measure to reform the Pentagon’s procurement practices.

The credit card legislation may have a potential hang-up in the House, however. Sen. Tom Coburn (R-Okla.) has attached an amendment to the package to allow the carrying of guns in parks and wildlife reserves. That provision is strongly opposed by Congressional Progressive Caucus Co-Chairman Raúl Grijalva (D-Ariz.), who also chairs the House Natural Resources Subcommittee on National Parks, Forests and Public Lands.

But this week’s main event will be off the House floor, where Democrats are marking up a mammoth 932-page climate and energy bill in the House Energy and Commerce Committee. Chairman Henry Waxman (D-Calif.) predicts the measure, a hard-fought compromise, will clear his panel by the end of the week in an early test for one of Obama’s top priorities.

Waxman has lined up support for the cap-and-trade bill from key moderates including Rep. Rick Boucher (D-Va.) and one-time rival Rep. John Dingell (D-Mich.) by offering up a host of compromises intended to soften the effect of the legislation on consumers and a host of industries, including coal, oil, natural gas, autos and steel, to name a few.

Meanwhile, the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee also will start marking up energy bills, including a renewable electricity standard. The House passed a renewable standard in 2007 only to have the Senate balk. An even stricter standard is in the House bill this year.

Senate Republicans, for their part, are expected to discuss their own energy proposals at their weekly luncheon today, with a major emphasis on nuclear power. House Republicans will continue to pound on Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) as she seeks to extricate herself from the imbroglio surrounding what she knew, and when, about the use of harsh interrogation techniques in 2002. The House GOP also will be training their fire at the Democrats’ cap-and-trade legislation, aiming hundreds of amendments at the measure while talking up their own ideas for health care reform.