Senate faces full September agenda

On the Senate’s agenda when members return from August recess: votes on the Bush-era tax cuts, climate change and small-business incentives; the authorization of the annual spending bills; running for reelection.

“The September schedule, no matter how you look at it, is going to be extraordinarily full,” said Sen. Ted Kaufman (D-Del.). “There’s a lot of stuff that’s been pushed off.”

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Overshadowing all of the activity are the November elections. And few are under the gun more than Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.).

Asked how the elections will affect the September agenda, Senate Majority Whip Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) was frank.

“I think the fall campaign began weeks ago,” Durbin told The Hill. “It limits our ability to get anything done, and it slows down to the point where the Senate grinds to a halt.”

Few Democrats believe September will be easy.

“It’s [Republicans’] intent to burn as much floor time as possible, to limit the time we have to work for the American people,” said Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (D-R.I.). “At the moment, they can say, ‘Mission accomplished.’ ”

For example, most Democrats said the crowded September schedule means that appropriations bills, which are supposed to be done by Oct. 1, are unlikely to pass, meaning that a continuing resolution (CR) on spending — as has been the Senate tradition — is all but certain.

“We won’t be able to do approps,” said Sen. Debbie Stabenow (D-Mich.). “It’s going to be a CR.”

The chamber is set to adjourn Oct. 8 until after the election. And Reid has laid out the first part of a lame-duck session to begin on Monday, Nov. 15. That session would last for a week, followed by a weeklong break for Thanksgiving, and then followed by another session starting on Monday, Nov. 29. The Senate’s schedule into December has yet to be determined.

Asked to gauge the Democratic agenda for September, several senators said a handful of issues that have agreement on a bipartisan basis could see approval. That includes a campaign waged by Sens. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) and Claire McCaskill (D-Mo.) to eliminate the Senate tradition that allows secret holds on nominations or legislation.

Wyden said Reid has guaranteed him a September vote on the motion.

“It’s going to be an extraordinarily hectic month, but I think a couple of factors will emerge,” Wyden said. “Measures that are bipartisan, which have been waged for years to end secrecy here in the Senate — measures that can move to the head of the queue — are going to be measures that there is significant bipartisan groundwork for passage.”

During the July work period, Reid tried and failed multiple times to pass the small-business bill, with few Republicans willing to sign on to the effort. Yet when the chamber returns on Monday, Sept. 13, the first roll-call votes scheduled on the following day will be on that bill. Reid filed a variety of motions last week to set up procedural votes on the bill starting on Tuesday, Sept. 14.

Reid also has notified Democrats to expect September votes on extending the 2001 and 2003 tax cuts signed into law under President George W. Bush.

Republicans, for their part, say they are only following Senate tradition in blocking an agenda they see as detrimental to the nation’s economy. Senior GOP senators also stuck to the party line that dictates they are being blocked from the chance to offer amendments to bills.

“We are old-fashioned. We believe in the Senate. If there are votes that are important, we should be able to bring them up,” said Sen. Kit Bond (R-Mo.). “We think we’ve got some very good amendments. And we all want to help small businesses, but a lot more things can be done in this bill. And we need to be able to offer our amendments.”

“It’s politics at the extreme,” said Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), who still has to get past his August primary. “Every one of these amendments Sen. Reid brings up, there’s no amendments allowed. So what are we supposed to do?”

Not all GOP senators are pessimistic about the September schedule. Sen. Susan Collins (Maine), a key centrist Republican, said at least the small-business bill will pass Congress in September, despite predictions that it will be a wasted month.

“I know that is the conventional wisdom, but I’m still optimistic that we can come together on some issues,” Collins said. “We can come together on a small-business bill. But it’s just not right for the Democratic leader to dictate what our side should be able to offer. I can see his wanting to limit the number of amendments, but for him to decide which ones we can and can’t offer, it’s just not the way the Senate usually operates. And that’s what’s caused this total breakdown.”

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Even more is lurking in the background on the September to-do list. The renewed START treaty between the U.S. and Russia is still awaiting Senate ratification, and Foreign Relations Committee Chairman John Kerry (D-Mass.) has been waging an uphill battle to win over enough Republican votes for approval. A total of 67 votes are needed, meaning that if the treaty is taken up in a lame-duck session, at least eight GOP votes would be needed — assuming all 59 Democrats support it.

Kerry is also the Obama administration’s point man on an energy bill, on which he has struggled to find Republican votes. Reid has said the Senate will take up the bill this fall, and Kerry was one of several Democrats to suggest a lame-duck session may be the appropriate venue.

“We all understand that September makes it very difficult,” Kerry told The Hill. “What I’m trying to do is to put together a bill that really could find the votes, and if we can’t do it in September — and there’s going to be a lot of reasons to do it in September — then we’re going to keep pushing and maybe come back after the election and do it in a lame-duck.”