Packed congressional agenda till end of year

The healthcare debate will again dominate the congressional agenda when lawmakers return after Labor Day, but a number of other high-profile items will keep the schedule packed until the year's end.

The fight over healthcare is expected to last until at least mid-October -- and perhaps beyond. Democrats will resume their legislative push this week, with President Barack Obama addressing Congress during a joint session Wednesday. Sen. Max Baucus (D-Mont.), who is leading the bipartisan Gang of Six negotiations trying to strike a deal, said last week that he expects healthcare reform to pass this year and that he's ready to move ahead with or without Republican support.

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Looming over the legislative give-and-take is an Oct. 15 deadline. Should lawmakers fail to pass a bill by that date, Democrats could turn to controversial reconciliation instructions that would let them bypass a filibuster and push through a bill with just a simple majority.

Republicans called on Democrats Sunday to think twice about using the reconciliation maneuver and slow down their healthcare drive if they want to pass their other priorities, including a sweeping climate-change bill.

Sen. Lamar Alexander (Tenn.), the third-ranked GOP senator, said that Democrats should consider passing more incremental reforms that have bipartisan support instead of one big bill with only Democratic backing.

"We saw with the immigration bill we don't do comprehensive very well. We're seeing it with healthcare. We're about to see it with energy and climate change," Alexander said on "Fox News Sunday."

"These 1,000-page bills that try to change complex systems don't work."

The drawn-out healthcare debate has forced lawmakers to push back consideration of the climate-change bill and the annual appropriations bills.

Work on the climate-change bill, a high priority of both House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) and President Obama, won't happen until at least mid-September. Senate Environment and Public Works Chairwoman Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.) and Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.) had planned to introduce their bill Sept. 8, but they delayed it because of the healthcare fight, Kerry's hip surgery and the death of Sen. Edward Kennedy (D-Mass.), Kerry and Boxer said last week.

Congress must still approve all 12 appropriations bills for the next fiscal year, which begins in October. While the House has passed all 12 of its bills, the Senate has only approved four of them, none of which have made it out of a House-Senate conference and onto the president's desk.

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) said last month it would be "terrific" to pass four more spending bills in the upper chamber in September. The Senate will try to pass as many spending bills as they can until October, when healthcare legislation is likely to come up on the floor, said Sen. Tom Harkin (D-Iowa), a senior appropriator. The rest of the bills will be taken up after then, Harkin said.

If any of the dozen appropriations bills aren't signed by the president into law by Sept. 30, Congress will have to turn to a continuing resolution to fund some government operations. Democratic leaders in Congress had hoped to pass all the spending bills on time this year, which hasn't happened since 1994.

The Obama administration is also hoping Congress soon turns to its plan for new financial regulations, seen by the White House as key to preventing another financial collapse. Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner, at a meeting of finance ministers Saturday, called on other countries to "move now" to implement a new financial framework at both the international and domestic levels. Geithner at the meeting touted the president's plan, which would boost the minimum levels of capital for financial firms and give more power to the Federal Reserve to oversee them.

Before year's end, Congress will need to decide whether to extend a number of expiring laws. Portions of the stimulus, including increased unemployment benefits and tax breaks for businesses and first-time home buyers, are set to end. But Democrats in both chambers have said they want to extend the benefits for the unemployed with the jobless rate near 10 percent.

The tax-writing panels, the House Ways and Means and Senate Finance committees, must also consider the estate tax, which would expire Dec. 31 and then return at a higher rate in 2011 if lawmakers do nothing about it. The expiring tax provisions will be reviewed by lawmakers after they're finished their work on healthcare reform, said Sen. Debbie Stabenow (D-Mich.), a senior member of the Senate Finance Committee.