For lawmakers hoping to push major legislation, it’s now, or after November

The fate of high-profile bills will be decided over the next two weeks as lawmakers trying to push legislation to President Obama’s desk are facing election-year headwinds.

There is little doubt that Congress will be active after the elections, facing a slew of decisions in the lame-duck session on taxes, Medicare and scheduled cuts to the Pentagon. But those measures are basically paralyzed until voters have spoken on Election Day.

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Members return to Washington this week, with some of them aiming to extend funding for highway programs and to prevent a spike in the interest rate for student loans. Other measures that could attract momentum, or falter this month range from agriculture to cybersecurity to domestic violence.

The focus for congressional leaders, however, will be on the highway and education bills. As campaign fever engulfs the Capitol, deals on those two issues could be among the last agreements before Congress takes its July 4 recess.

But they are no sure thing.

House Republicans are waiting for leaders in the Senate to produce an agreement on student loans after passing their own bill over a White House veto threat. Meanwhile, negotiations in a House-Senate conference committee over a long-term highway bill broke down last week, increasing the odds of another extension that will kick the issue into next year.

Complicating the effort is a legislative schedule in which the House and Senate are rarely in town at that same time, along with an approaching election that has deepened the already high level of distrust between the parties.

On the highway legislation, some Democrats believe Republicans are increasingly content to wait for a long-term bill until 2013, when they hope to have Mitt Romney in the White House and Sen. Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) running the upper chamber.

Conversely, Republicans are suspicious of Democratic negotiators because, they argue, any bipartisan accord will undermine President Obama’s re-election strategy of running against a “do-nothing” Congress.

"I hope there can be agreements, but it’s important to appreciate that the president has a narrative out there that Congress can’t get anything done, and that’s why he needs to be re-elected,” said Rep. Tom Price (Ga.), chairman of the House Republican Policy Committee, during a Friday taping of C-SPAN’s “Newsmakers.”

“So if you think about it, if Congress gets something done, which requires the president to help, then it harms his narrative,” Price said. “So what we see is a president that seems to be urging a Democratic Senate not to be positive and not to be productive in these negotiations as we move forward.”

“My sense is that the president is not encouraging [Senate Majority Leader Harry] Reid [D-Nev.] to actually be productive, that they’re just waiting until the election occurs,” Price added.

Prospects for an agreement on student loans appear somewhat brighter. After McConnell, the Senate GOP leader, and House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) issued a proposal containing options to resolve a dispute over how to pay for the measure, Reid issued a counter-offer that Boehner’s office notably did not dismiss out of hand.

Boehner spokesman Michael Steel said the House is now waiting to see what the Senate can pass. On Tuesday, Reid told reporters he felt “fairly confident we’ll get that done,” even as he criticized Republican obstruction on other issues. At the same time, Boehner has scoffed at the Democratic urgency over the June 30 deadline and noted that Congress could fix the student loan interest rate retroactively if a deal isn't done in time.

There is less optimism over talks on the highway bill. After weeks of hopeful statements, the leaders of the conference committee in recent days have traded blame over the ongoing stalemate. Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.) cited “a definite lack of urgency” on the part of House leaders to get a deal, while the chief GOP negotiator, Rep. John Mica (Fla.), said the Senate was “unwilling to compromise at all” on provisions the GOP wants included, such as approval of the Keystone pipeline and measures to cut down on energy regulations.

Current highway funding expires at the end of June. Boehner has all but endorsed another short-term extension to buy time for negotiators, saying that if the two sides could not agree, the next step would be an extension of current funding levels through the November election.

House Republicans have struggled to gain leverage in the talks because, while the Senate passed a two-year bill with bipartisan support, the House could only approve short-term extensions, not the five-year bill that Boehner envisioned.

“Our House conferees are willing to negotiate with the Senate, and we have continued to negotiate in good faith,” Steel said Friday. “The Highway Trust Fund is bankrupt, and the federal highway program is in serious need of reform. The House positions, including the job-creating Keystone pipeline, are fair and practical.”

With both the House and Senate in session for the two weeks before the next scheduled recess for the week of Independence Day, Congress could also make progress on other languishing legislation. The House and Senate have each passed competing reauthorizations of the Violence Against Women Act, but a technical snafu in the Senate version has delayed negotiations on a final agreement.

Legislation dealing with flood insurance, Food and Drug Administration reform, small business tax incentives and cybersecurity could also advance in the next several weeks. The Senate plans to continue debate on a farm bill next week, while the House is holding votes on energy legislation and continues work on appropriations bills.

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