Congress returns to full plate

Congress returns this week to what could be a long summer as Democrats press forward on a series of hot-button issues relating to energy development, climate change, healthcare and financial services regulatory reform.

Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee Chairman Edward Kennedy (D-Mass.) is expected to release the details of a bill to reform the nation’s healthcare system this week.

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The document will signal a shift in the lobbying campaign on reform efforts, which until now has focused on broad themes like the need to cut costs or expand coverage. Once Kennedy releases his bill, groups will have a fuller sense of what healthcare reform could actually mean; that is, who will be asked to pay for it.

Kennedy’s measure is thought to lean more toward a government role in healthcare coverage than Republicans and some Democrats favor. But one potential intra-party objector, Sen. Max Baucus (D-Mont.), the chairman of the Senate Finance Committee, issued a statement with Kennedy on Saturday that declared their intention to offer “similar and complementary” legislation that could be floor-ready before the August recess.

On the effort to improve oversight of the nation’s financial architecture, lobbyists and lawmakers are waiting for the Obama administration to outline proposed changes to the alphabet soup of agencies that constitute the financial regulatory landscape.

Industry sources indicate that the administration is considering a wide array of changes to the system.

Among the options under consideration are the creation of a new financial products commission; a consolidation of the different existing banking regulators; granting the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation (FDIC) authority to wind down non-bank institutions; and a potential merger of the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) and Commodity Futures Trading Commission (CFTC).

The administration’s plans will require congressional action and will set off a spate of lobbying battles. The American Bankers Association (ABA) sent a letter to Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner on Friday outlining significant concerns with many of the regulatory changes under discussion, though the association supports the creation of a “systemic risk” regulator.

House Financial Services Committee Chairman Barney Frank (D-Mass.) told CNBC on Thursday that he was opposed to the creation of a unitary banking regulator, but that he supported setting up a “systemic risk regulator” to have an eye on the wider financial system.

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On Wednesday, the committee will also take a look at the future of the government mortgage giants, Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac. The mortgage firms are playing a central role in the administration’s efforts to shore up the housing market, but they have required repeated government bailouts. New data out last week indicated that the housing market is showing significant signs of stress and may still be months away from reaching a bottom. Foreclosure and delinquency rates are at record highs, according to a report from the Mortgage Bankers Association.

And on Thursday, President Obama is expected to meet with the heads of roughly eight insurance groups to discuss reform efforts in that industry sector.

On energy, House Democrats won a big victory on climate change prior to recess when Chairman Henry Waxman (D-Calif.) forged a compromise in the Energy and Commerce Committee that allowed a cap-and-trade bill to proceed.

But the victory, while significant, may at this point be somewhat symbolic given the long path still ahead. Democratic leaders will try to push the bill through the other committees claiming jurisdiction in upcoming weeks, as they prepare for a floor vote they have said will happen this summer.

Meanwhile, the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee will try to find agreement on an effort to boost renewable energy development. The Renewable Electricity Standard has been a longtime focus of Chairman Jeff Bingaman (D), and despite some difficulty, the New Mexico senator looks to be on the verge of winning enough support to include it in a broader energy bill the committee is crafting. There are a number of amendments that must be dealt with first, however, at a markup now set for next Thursday, June 4.

Bingaman’s proposal would require utilities to purchase at least 15 percent of their power from renewable sources by 2021.

The measure is also likely to promote the further development of carbon capture and sequestration, a technology that could solve coal’s big CO2 problem, and an oil and gas title. Committee spokesman Bill Wicker said the committee may need two and perhaps three more markups to complete its work.