Congress returns to full plate

Democrats race to secure a final compromise on healthcare reform, the Senate tackles the debt ceiling and a possible challenge on climate change and a House panel examines a big energy merger as Congress returns to work this week. 

The main order of business remains the push by congressional Democratic leaders and President Barack Obama to hash out a final deal on healthcare legislation. Over the weekend, aides and the Congressional Budget Office (CBO) rushed to flesh out and score the tentative agreements reached at a series of negotiating sessions at the White House. Chief among them is a labor-backed compromise to an excise tax on high-cost insurance plans. 

But if struggling to lock down the votes and pass healthcare weren’t enough of a challenge, Senate Democrats now worry they may lose their essential 60th vote by way of Tuesday’s special election to fill the seat left vacant by the late Sen. Edward Kennedy (D-Mass.).

In other business, the Senate is set Wednesday to begin debating a bill to raise the debt ceiling. Big business groups such as the U.S. Chamber of Commerce have lobbied in favor of the bill, which extends the government’s ability to borrow.

The measure has attracted an unusual amount of interest among energy lobbyists, too, because it is a possible vehicle for Sen. Lisa Murkowski’s (R-Alaska) efforts to block the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) from regulating greenhouse gas emissions.

An aide to Murkowski said an amendment remains on the table, although some energy lobbyists have pressed Murkowski to forgo that route, fearing it would trigger a response from Democrats that could strengthen EPA’s regulatory hand. 

One energy lobbyist said Murkowski is more likely to use the Congressional Review Act (CRA), which gives lawmakers the ability to undo federal rules. The act allows senators to bring a resolution of disapproval from the committee of jurisdiction to the floor with the support of 30 members. It isn’t clear when Murkowski would try to force a vote.

Federal rules are often a target of congressional criticism, but the CRA has been used successfully only once, during the 1990s when Congress blocked a controversial ergonomics standard proposed by the Clinton administration Occupational Safety and Health Administration.

In the House on Wednesday, Rep. Edward Markey (D-Mass.), through the Energy and Commerce Energy and Environment subcommittee he chairs, will review a plan by ExxonMobil to buy XTO Energy for $31 billion.

The hearing is also likely to delve into the topic of hydraulic fracturing, or “fracking,” a technique to blast water, chemicals and sand underground to create cracks for natural gas to flow through. Energy companies have used the practice for decades, but as huge natural-gas reserves have been discovered in shale deposits underlying populated areas in New York and Pennsylvania, new concerns have been raised about whether fracking is properly regulated.

Rep. Diana DeGette (D-Colo.) and Sen. Bob Casey Jr. (D-Pa.) have introduced bills that would end the exemption fracking now has from the Safe Drinking Water Act and require companies to disclose the chemicals they use in the process.

ExxonMobil included a clause in its bid to buy XTO that it could back out of the deal if Congress moves to regulate hydraulic fracturing. Industry contends federal regulation is unnecessary, given state regulations. Energy companies also say more regulation will slow production of an important “bridge fuel,” so labeled because natural gas emits less carbon dioxide than do other fossil fuels, allowing time for renewable energy resources to develop. 

Back in the Senate, Democrats are also pushing to reach an agreement to hold a vote on Ben Bernanke’s confirmation to a second term as Federal Reserve chairman.

Bernanke has the support from business groups, but several senators have placed holds on the vote. The Fed has come under growing pressure on Capitol Hill after the extraordinary step to support the financial industry it undertook the last two years. 

The House has passed a bill to allow government audits of the central bank’s monetary policy.

Sens. Chris Dodd (D-Conn.) and Richard Shelby (R-Ala.), the chairman and ranking member of the Senate Banking Committee, continue to work behind the scenes for a compromise on a financial regulatory overhaul.

One touchy topic is the creation of a new Consumer Financial Protection Agency (CFPA) that would have power over credit cards, home loans and other issues. Democrats and consumer groups favor the idea, but Republicans and the financial industry don’t.

The U.S. Chamber of Commerce is hosting a “small-business fly-in” day on Wednesday to discuss the “harmful impact” of the CFPA. After a panel discussion that Sen. Mike Johanns (R-Neb.) is expected to participate in, Chamber lobbyists will lead small-business owners to a series of meetings on Capitol Hill against the creation of the CFPA.

Jeffrey Young and Silla Brush contributed to this report.