By Mike Lillis and Russell Berman - 05/01/11 08:09 PM EDT
Congress returns from a two-week Easter recess on Monday amid an intensifying national debate over government spending, spiraling deficits and the importance of raising the federal debt ceiling — none of which Congress plans to tackle immediately.
Instead, those issues will take a back seat to legislation addressing a different set of hot-button topics, including healthcare reform, abortion funding and offshore oil drilling.
A third health-related proposal would permanently prevent federal dollars from funding abortion services. Although similar statutes have outlawed taxpayer-funded abortions for decades, those laws are temporary, requiring congressional renewal at the end of each year.
With gas prices tickling $4 per gallon, GOP leaders this week are also pushing legislation to expand and expedite oil-drilling permits in the Gulf of Mexico and beyond. Republicans say that strategy will bring down prices at the pump — a controversial claim disputed by the Energy Department.
Meanwhile, the Senate on Monday will return to legislation funding the Small Business Administration (SBA) — a proposal that's been held up since March 14 as lawmakers have jousted over how to approach hundreds of amendments, many of them politically charged.
Just before the recess, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) threatened to pull the bill from the floor when Sen. Olympia Snowe (R-Maine) tried to attach language restricting the government's powers to adopt new regulations.
More recently, Reid reiterated his threat, saying he'll proceed to other issues if he can't reach some consensus on the SBA bill by "Monday or Tuesday."
"I've been jerked around on that for more than a month, and it's not fair to the country, it's not fair to the Senate," he said on a press call Wednesday.
"Unless I can get an agreement on amendments, I'm going to not proceed further on that, because it appears now that maybe this is just an effort to create a lot of tough votes and never get to the end of this."
"Details about how to proceed with regard to Sen. Snowe’s amendment are still being worked out," a Democratic aide said Friday in an email.
Next in line, the aide said, will be either legislation eliminating government subsidies for oil companies or a series of proposals outlining the nation's budget for 2012.
Last week, Reid indicated plans to stage a vote on the House-passed budget blueprint, which would put Republicans in the tough spot of either supporting the contentious Medicare cuts in the bill or breaking with their party on the biggest spending issue of the day.
Reid's announcement prompted Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) to promise a separate vote on President Obama's 2012 budget bill, introduced in February.
"Since there is no Democrat budget in the Senate," McConnell charged Thursday, "we’ll give our colleagues an opportunity to stand with the president in failing to address the problems facing our nation while calling for trillions in new spending, massive new debt and higher taxes on American energy, families and small businesses across the country."
Behind the scenes, House lawmakers this week will also begin to focus their attention on budget-related issues.
Lower-chamber talks on raising the federal debt limit will begin in earnest now that the GOP has dispensed with both the 2011 spending bill and a vote on its 2012 budget blueprint. Republican leaders told members in a conference call last week that they would hold “listening sessions” to solicit input on what the party rank-and-file want to see attached to the debt-ceiling bill.
Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) has said the House would not approve an increase without significant spending cuts and structural reforms. Vice President Joe Biden will separately lead bipartisan negotiations on deficit reduction beginning May 5, which may ultimately be linked to the debt-ceiling hike.
The Treasury Department has warned the government could default on its debt for the first time if Congress does not act by July 8. A GOP leadership aide said the bill must contain both “immediate” cuts and longer term reforms, such as a trigger that would require reductions if federal spending surpasses a specific percentage of the gross domestic product. Among the immediate cuts under consideration are reductions in Medicaid spending outlined in the GOP's 2012 budget, as well as a decrease in the federal workforce.
Some conservatives are pushing for a series of short-term debt-limit increases — which Democrats are likely to oppose — while others want a balanced-budget amendment attached to the bill. Boehner has not set a firm deadline for the House to act, but he told lawmakers he wanted a proposal “sooner rather than later,” an aide said.
—Josiah Ryan contributed to this report.