Senate Democrats face critical four weeks

Senate Democrats will be racing against the clock and calendar this week when they return to Washington for a four-week legislative sprint.

The majority party hopes to take up and pass a long-stalled package of unemployment insurance benefits this week, as well as the Wall Street reform conference report they’d hoped to finish before the recess. Democrats plan to map out specifics at their weekly lunch on Tuesday.

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Few believe there will be enough time or will for major legislative battles after the Senate recesses for a monthlong break on Aug. 6, meaning some of the heaviest legislative lifting — an energy bill, immigration reform, the START arms control treaty and campaign finance reform — may get pushed into 2011.

“It is really going to be hard,” said Jennifer Duffy, a senior editor and Senate analyst for The Cook Political Report. “Maybe they can move the ball down the field on some of these things, but actually getting it done and to the president’s desk? Occasionally there’s a surprise, and they’ll pull one of those all-nighters or two, but at the end of the day not much gets done.”

Democrats appear poised to start the month with some successes.

Republican Sens. Olympia Snowe and Susan Collins of Maine both voted in favor of extending unemployment benefits before the Senate recessed. That puts Democrats within reach of the 60 votes they need to clear procedural hurdles. The party was down a vote after the death of Sen. Robert Byrd (D-W.Va.), but West Virginia Gov. Joe Manchin (D) is expected to appoint a successor soon.

Democrats were also close to moving the Wall Street reform bill before the recess. Sen. Russ Feingold (Wis.) is the only Democrat expected to vote against the conference report, while Collins has said she is inclined to support it.

Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) this week voiced objections to one of the funding sources for the legislation, but Snowe and Sen. Scott Brown (R-Mass.) have both spoken favorably of the legislation. To clear the conference report, Democrats only need two of the four Republican votes, if Byrd’s successor also supports the legislation.

Supreme Court nominee Elena Kagan could also get her confirmation vote by the Judiciary Committee as early as this week, with leaders aiming for a final floor vote later in the month. Aides say about a week of Senate floor time will be taken up by pro and con floor speeches on Kagan — the debate over previous nominee Sonia Sotomayor took up three days last year, but Sotomayor received 68 votes, while Kagan is believed to be slightly more controversial.

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid’s (D-Nev.) own lieutenants will also be holding him to old promises. Foreign Relations Committee Chairman John Kerry (D-Mass.) plans to hold a committee vote this month on the START treaty between the U.S. and Russia, and has also been leading efforts on a climate-change bill that Reid has publicly pledged to bring to the floor this summer. And Sen. Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.), a leading proponent of immigration reform, may well press Reid for floor time for that issue.

What little time remaining after August will even be filled. When members return on Sept. 13, Duffy notes, they will be faced with the looming deadline of funding appropriation bills before the start of the fiscal year Oct. 1. What’s likely, aides say, is that the chamber will simply pass a continuing resolution (CR), as it routinely does.

“There are some things that are must-dos, like the small matter of 13 appropriations bills,” Duffy said. “Do they have any of them done? So if they’re not fighting about appropriations, they have to fight over the CR. Because Sept. 30, come hell or high water, they have to do that. And it takes longer than people think.”

One senior Democratic aide said Senate GOP Leader Mitch McConnell (Ky.), who has shown little inclination to work with Democrats this year, will eventually hold the cards to cooperation on any remaining issues.

“Ultimately, it all comes down to the Republicans,” another aide said. “We do still have to legislate this year, and we hope they’ll join us.”