Democrats Eye Challenging Summer

House, Senate Hope to Clear Decks of Most Controversial Agenda Items

Posted June 2, 2009 at 6:29pm

House and Senate Democrats are headed into a legislative minefield over the next two months as they look to cram some of their most controversial agenda items into just eight weeks of work.

Though the two chambers have barely resumed work after the weeklong Memorial Day recess, already House Democrats are facing a GOP revolt on the $90 billion-plus supplemental war spending bill and an intraparty battle over how quickly to move on climate change legislation.

In the Senate, Democrats are moving cautiously as they prepare for major debates in July over their own massive health care overhaul and a potential partisan brawl over Sonia Sotomayor, President Barack Obama’s nominee to replace Supreme Court Justice David Souter.

The immediate issue Congressional Democrats have to deal with this month is passing the war supplemental, and House leaders could schedule a vote on the conference report this week.

Though House and Senate Democrats have reached agreement on the biggest stumbling blocks in the competing versions they passed last month, House Republican objections to the inclusion of a $108 billion loan to the International Monetary Fund could stall the bill. Democrats need GOP votes to make up for defectors in their own ranks who object to funding the wars.

House Minority Whip Eric Cantor (R-Va.) charged that the IMF money could actually fund terrorism.

“Handing over billions to the IMF not only saddles young Americans with more debt, but could fund terrorist activity — a complete affront to our troops combating terrorism across the globe,— Cantor said in a statement.

Minority Leader John Boehner (R-Ohio) also appeared to be gearing up for a fight. “Weighing down this critical legislation with non-defense spending will only drag this process out further and cost it essential Republican support needed for passage,— he said in a statement.

If Republicans hold together en masse, they could derail the bill, but that would require casting a politically dicey vote against funding for the troops.

A GOP leadership aide said that a whip effort against the bill was likely if the IMF money remained, but that a final decision hadn’t been made.

House Democrats included the funding at the request of the White House, but they are putting the onus on Obama to find the votes for it — either by getting more Democrats to back the war funding bill or by peeling off Republicans.

In their conference agreement on the supplemental, Democrats split the difference between the $96.7 billion House bill and the $91.3 billion Senate bill. But much of the extra funding will be used to cover billions in cost overruns at the Pentagon because recruiting drives are outstripping expectations as a result of of the recession. Final details were still being worked out, along with timing.

The bill could theoretically hit the floor this week, although the IMF dispute and the lack of an imperative for getting it done as soon as possible could easily kick it to next week.

But Republican opposition may be the least of the problems facing Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) as she seeks to get a few of her wayward chairmen on board to advance a climate change bill through the chamber this summer.

With the bill caught in a morass of overlapping committee jurisdictions, Pelosi met Tuesday with both Agriculture Chairman Collin Peterson (D-Minn.) and Ways and Means Chairman Charlie Rangel (D-N.Y.) — the two biggest roadblocks remaining in the House.

“I met today with Mr. Rangel and … Chairman Peterson as well, and I’m optimistic that we’ll be able to move forward in a timely fashion,— Pelosi said.

She said, however, that she isn’t setting a deadline for action. House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) has said previously that he’d like to see the bill on the floor in late June or early July, leaving time to tackle health care before the August recess.

But Peterson has threatened to corral votes to kill the bill on the House floor over concerns that it’s unfair to rural areas and the ethanol industry. The measure would set up a cap-and-trade system for carbon emissions.

Peterson said Pelosi made clear her desire to see the energy bill move quickly, and he laid out his concerns about the bill. He said he has a meeting planned with Energy and Commerce Chairman Henry Waxman (D-Calif.) today.

“They seem like they want to work with us,— he said. “We’ll talk and we’ll see.—

Rangel has sought to have a markup in his committee, but only after health care legislation is finished.

Energy and Commerce Committee staff, meanwhile, are preparing a bill for the floor. Aides said Tuesday that they expect only minor changes as nods to the other eight committees with jurisdiction.

In the Senate, a handful of Senators are slowing down a measure to allow the Food and Drug Administration to regulate tobacco for the first time. With Sen. Richard Burr (R-N.C.) leading the charge, the measure is still likely to pass eventually, but Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) may have to use several time-consuming procedural motions to accomplish that goal.

Senate aides predicted debate on the bill would bleed into next week, not only because of the tobacco-state Senators’ efforts but also because a number of Senators hope to attach unrelated measures such as a prescription drug re-importation bill and the “Cash for Clunkers— measure.

But the Senate has the time to spare. Senators are chiefly waiting for the Finance Committee and the Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee to finalize the health care overhaul in time to bring a merger of the two panels’ bills to the floor in mid- to late July.

Both panels plan to hold markups of their respective bills in mid-June.

Reid acknowledged Tuesday that July would likely pack a punch, considering that he had already planned to take up health care before being faced with pushing through Sotomayor’s confirmation in time for the August recess.

“I remind everyone, I told the president, when I first met with him about this Supreme Court nomination, I had two problems with it. The first is I’m going to lose the person I know the most on the Supreme Court. That’s Justice Souter, No. 1. No. 2, it messes up my schedule,— Reid said. “So, no matter when we do [the nomination], it messes up my schedule. So, I’m just stuck with that.—

Along with the tobacco bill and the supplemental, the Senate also hopes to pass a few regular appropriations bills — perhaps those dealing with the legislative branch and the Homeland Security Department — during June. Other possibilities include authorization bills for the State and Homeland Security departments.

One senior Senate Democratic aide noted that the relatively sleepy Senate floor schedule would likely be welcome, because Sotomayor and health care “will co-dominate both Senators’ schedules and the news headlines— this month.

“A lot of the Senate action will be happening off the floor,— the aide noted.