It’s Last Call for Legislative Agenda

Posted July 9, 2010 at 5:47pm

With four weeks until the August recess, Congressional Democrats are facing a final window for legislative accomplishments and little chance that they can get more than a handful of bills through before election season slams it shut.

“We have a long list of things to do and not a lot of time to do them,” one senior Senate Democratic aide said.

Even if Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) makes good on his threat to keep the Senate in session for a fifth week through mid-August, the Democrats’ best chances for accomplishments during this work period are likely on a Wall Street reform bill, an unemployment extension measure and the confirmation of Solicitor General Elena Kagan to the Supreme Court. Both parties have said a supplemental war spending bill needs to be passed before the August break, but wide differences between the House and Senate will make that difficult.

“We have to pass it, but we just don’t know how,” another Senate Democratic aide said of the supplemental.

Reid has invested heavily in moving an energy and climate change bill, but Republican and Democratic aides said the prospects for even the narrowest of energy bills are not good. Reid would need 60 votes to overcome the inevitable filibuster of virtually any energy legislation the Democrats might offer, but the handful of Republicans who are sympathetic to some of the bill’s goals may be turned off by the cost of the measure, which has yet to be determined.

Democrats haven’t decided on how expansive their energy bill will be, but it will likely carry provisions aimed at making sure BP and others pick up the tab for the Gulf oil spill.

Senate Democrats could reveal this week whether they will take up a controversial cap on carbon emissions or pursue a narrow measure that deals with renewable and alternative fuels.

Senate Democrats are also hot to roll back a Supreme Court decision that allows corporations to spend freely in elections. However, time may be so tight that they cannot get to the DISCLOSE Act in July, aides acknowledged. Timing could depend on whether Democrats are able to find the filibuster-breaking 60th vote on the measure, which has already passed the House.

Still, Reid has yet to set a concrete schedule for the month, given that he hasn’t firmed up the votes for financial reform or the unemployment bill — both candidates for action this week.

At press time, it was unclear whether West Virginia Gov. Joe Manchin (D) would appoint a successor to the late Sen. Robert Byrd (D) this week — a key factor in whether Reid will have 60 votes for the jobless measure and a potential factor in his ability to round up the votes for financial reform.

“We’ll do whatever we have 60 votes for,” the senior Senate Democratic aide said. “It depends on the situation in West Virginia.”

The Senate is already working on a small-business job-creation bill, but a crush of potential GOP amendments makes it a likely candidate to be sidelined for other business, aides acknowledged.

One senior Senate GOP aide noted that Democrats will have to burn up most of their time this month dealing with issues that couldn’t pass last month. The aide estimated that GOP objections would require at least a week’s debate on financial reform and at least three days for jobless benefits. Then, the Kagan nomination will likely take three days. That would leave Democrats with barely a week to deal with the campaign finance bill, energy, small business and the supplemental.

“The Democrats’ July schedule looks like it will be two parts cleaning up for their incompetence in June with [unemployment insurance] and reg reform, one part not letting a crisis go to waste with energy tax, a dash of crass partisan hackery with the DISCLOSE Act, one Supreme Court nomination, and they’ll consider funding our troops but only if they can bring a boatload of special interest funding along for the ride,” the GOP aide said. “It’s like a case study in how not to create jobs and help the economy.”

House Democratic aides said they hope that the Senate can finally produce something on unemployment benefits, aid to states and a small-business lending bill in addition to the supplemental and the financial reform bill.

The House plans to start taking up appropriations bills after passing a spending cap $7 billion below President Barack Obama’s budget request before the July Fourth break. Those bills have something for Democrats and Republicans alike; vulnerable Democrats will be able to say they are bringing home the bacon while Republicans bid for the mantle of fiscal responsibility by embracing an unprecedented one-year, unilateral earmark moratorium.

The House will also take on the Gulf oil spill, as Democrats aim to beat up on BP and try to put Republicans in the position of defending Big Oil.

There are also the oddball bipartisan bills that the House hopes the Senate finds time to squeeze in, such as the Federal Aviation Administration reauthorization and food safety legislation, but it’s unlikely the Senate will have time for those measures.

Meanwhile, tensions are simmering between the liberal and conservative wings of the House Democratic Caucus over the messy handling of the war supplemental before the break. Some Democratic hawks wanted to clear a clean war supplemental without domestic add-ons, but the rule for the bill made passage of the war money contingent on the adoption of the domestic stimulus spending.

But for liberals growing increasingly disenchanted with the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the domestic spending items were essential, and the intraparty squabbling appears set to continue as the two chambers negotiate a final package and the military’s calls for the money grow more urgent.