Road Map: Next Two Weeks Will Be the Prelude to a Big July

Posted June 15, 2009 at 6:44pm

The casual observer of C-SPAN could be forgiven for thinking that in the next two weeks the House and Senate will solve the riddle of health care reform, pass sweeping new energy legislation, approve a multibillion-dollar war spending bill, confirm a new Supreme Court nominee and completely overhaul the immigration system.

[IMGCAP(1)]But alas, it is June in Washington, D.C., which means the only sure thing is that hours of endless quorum calls in the Senate and overheated rhetoric from House partisans will produce almost nothing before Members of Congress head home for patriotic picnics and flag-waving sessions over the July Fourth recess.

In fact, aside from the war supplemental — which is also facing problems — almost nothing of significance appears likely to pass before the recess, making the next two weeks little more than a session of political foreplay before the big legislative push starts in July.

On the biggest-ticket item on Capitol Hill, health care reform, Democrats remain deeply divided over how to proceed. With the Senate’s Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee marking up its bill this week, and the Finance Committee doing its version next, final passage is at least a month away.

The problem for Democrats, at least at this point, is somewhat esoteric: Do they decide to completely ignore Republicans and some of their own moderates in order to push through as strong a set of reforms as possible? Or do they abandon their long-sought-after public health care option in favor of something that can be touted as bipartisan?

Reform with a robust public option for health care and new controls on insurance companies is a fan favorite of the party’s liberal base and has been set up nicely thanks to the option of achieving it through the budget reconciliation bill. But Democrats don’t want to swing too far to the left in advance of the crucial 2010 midterm elections.

And President Barack Obama — who is enjoying 90 percent-plus approval ratings among Democrats — has already demonstrated he’s willing to sacrifice some of his fringe support to get legislation through the chamber without a huge partisan brawl.

Republicans, meanwhile, will likely spend most of the next two weeks hammering Democrats. Expect to hear Republicans excoriate Democrats for their “Washington takeover— of health care, which — along with “the march to socialism— and a handful of other catchphrases — has come to dominate much of the conservative critique of Obama’s economic policies.

Republicans, however, will find themselves in a bit of bind of their own, message-wise, over the next two weeks. Although they lay out a strong case against implementing even a voluntary government-run health care system, they remain much weaker on how they would deal with the millions of Americans who either cannot afford health insurance or cannot qualify for coverage. Republican leaders, most notably Senate GOP Conference Chairman Lamar Alexander (Tenn.), have become increasingly wary of simply being against things and have sought to find proposals that Republicans can at least make a token show for during policy debates with Democrats.

As is the case with cautious Democrats, look for Republicans like Alexander, who have an eye on the 2010 campaigns, to try to carve out ways for the GOP to be for something during the health care debate.

The same can be said for energy, where Republicans this week and next will spend significant time hammering away on Democrats’ various cap-and-trade proposals for climate change. With gas prices once again on the rise — and just about every Democrat in the House and Senate, save for House Energy and Commerce Chairman Henry Waxman (Calif.), losing interest in the issue — Republicans are hoping to reprise their 2008 “summer surprise— and ride the energy issue back to relevancy.

Republicans will also be looking for a little of their lost magic when it comes to the ongoing debate over Obama’s nomination of federal appeals court Judge Sonia Sotomayor to the Supreme Court.

Conservatives have dusted off their playbooks from the mid-1990s, it seems, firing off increasingly sharp attacks against her positions on such GOP standards as private property rights, abortion, affirmative action and gun rights. Although Senate Republicans, led by Judiciary ranking member Jeff Sessions (Ala.), will likely continue to hold their fire, that strategy may not last through the July Fourth recess.

Much of the Republican messaging on the Sotomayor nomination has been process-based — attacking Democrats for what Republicans complain is an expedited timetable. But with Democrats able to counter that Sotomayor’s mid-July hearings are on par with the schedule for previous Republican high court nominees, that line of argument may be difficult to keep up for three-plus weeks.

Democrats can be expected to continue to use campaign-style tactics to push her nomination. While some leaders on the right have chafed at the fact that political operatives like Stephanie Cutter are in charge of the nomination for the White House, the public has not yet shown any concern and Democrats in the Senate appear more than happy to have her.

Even the one “sure thing— coming into the last two weeks before Independence Day — the war supplemental — could have some trouble. Despite lawmakers’ normal allergic reaction to anything that can be construed as “anti-troop,— especially as July Fourth approaches, Republicans are making a major push against the bill this week in the House.

House Republicans remain adamantly opposed because of the inclusion of $108 billion in loans to the International Monetary Fund, so the White House and Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) have been appealing to the 51 Democrats who opposed the bill the first time around to change their votes. Meanwhile, some Democrats who backed the bill the first time around appear likely to vote against it this time over objections to the IMF funding.

Look for Republicans to rail against the “global bailout,— as House Republican Conference Chairman Mike Pence (Ind.) put it Monday.

Then there are the also-ran items — big-ticket legislative proposals that, despite the earnest insistence of Democratic leaders, are as far from completion as they were at the beginning of the new Congress. Immigration, despite continued demonstrations by reform supporters, remains largely dormant. The same goes for labor reforms, which the legislation’s chief backer, Sen. Tom Harkin (D-Iowa), has repeatedly said won’t come back up until the expected seating in the Senate of Minnesota Democrat Al Franken occurs sometime next month.

Steven T. Dennis contributed to this report.