By Alexander Bolton - 09/28/10 10:00 AM EDT
Democrats are considering cramming as many as 20 pieces of legislation into the lame-duck session they plan to hold after the Nov. 2 election.
The array of bills competing for floor time shows the sense of urgency among Democratic lawmakers to act before the start of the 112th Congress, when Republicans are expected to control more seats in the Senate and House.
The highest-profile item for November and December is the tax cuts of 2001 and 2003, passed under President George W. Bush, which expire at year’s end.
Democrats have promised they will not allow tax rates to rise for families making less than $250,000 a year.
Democratic leaders have also prioritized the defense authorization bill, which includes a repeal of the “Don’t ask, don’t tell” policy that bans gays from serving openly in the military.
Democrats and gay-rights activists fear repeal could prove impossible if Republicans control the House or additional Senate seats.
Sen. Dick Durbin (Ill.), the chamber’s second-ranking Democrat, has promised to push for a vote on the DREAM Act, which would give the children of illegal immigrants a chance to earn legal residence.
That bill would have much less chance of passing if Republicans controlled the House.
Democratic leaders also view an extension of unemployment insurance benefits and a freeze in scheduled cuts to doctors’ Medicare reimbursements as must-pass legislation.
Lawmakers could spend much of the lame-duck session haggling over these two expensive proposals, which sucked up weeks of time in the Senate earlier this year.
Thousands of laid-off workers will begin to lose unemployment benefits after Nov. 30, and doctors are scheduled to see a 23 percent cut in Medicare reimbursements on Dec. 1.
Conservative Blue Dog Democrats in the House may demand the cost of the so-called doc fix to be offset with spending cuts.
The limited amount of time in a lame-duck session has only heightened competition among Democrats pushing different pet priorities.
Finance Committee Chairman Max Baucus (D-Mont.) wants the Senate to consider a package of tax-relief extensions he has been working on all year.
“The fully paid-for bill Sen. Baucus introduced this month cuts taxes for families paying college tuition and state and local sales taxes, for teachers who purchase supplies for their classroom and for many employers, which frees up cash and creates jobs,” said a Finance Committee aide. “These tax cuts will create jobs and provide the support our economy needs, and they should be passed this year.”
Sen. Jeff Bingaman (D-N.M.), chairman of the Energy and Natural Resources Committee, is intent on passing a renewable electricity standard.
Sen. Joe Lieberman (I-Conn.), chairman of the Homeland Security Committee, says his cybersecurity bill should also come up for a vote, while Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.), chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee, has called for ratification of the New START arms-control treaty with Russia.
Sen. Jay Rockefeller (D-W.Va.) says he intends to hold Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) to a promise to schedule a vote on legislation that would bar the Environmental Protection Agency from taking action to curb carbon gas emissions for two years.
“Sen. Rockefeller feels very strongly that both his mine and workplace safety bill and EPA suspension bill need to be brought before the full Senate,” said an aide to Rockefeller. “He will continue to work to see the passage of both as quickly as possible and is committed to moving them forward. He continues to evaluate acceptable vehicles to do so.”
Sen. Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.), the vice chairman of the Senate Democratic Conference, told reporters Friday that leaders would also bring up a bill to address Chinese currency manipulation.
Sen. Tom Harkin (D-Iowa), chairman of the Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee, hopes Congress will pass food-safety legislation Reid tried to bring to the floor last week. Democratic leaders pulled the bill even though they could have had enough votes to stop a Republican filibuster.
Durbin, who has made food safety a high priority, later told reporters that it could have taken nearly a week to jump through the procedural hoops necessary to pass the bill.
House leaders have some of their own priorities.
Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) told reporters last week that she hopes to take up child nutrition legislation, a favorite item of liberals that may set less generous levels of assistance if passed by a GOP-controlled House. (The bill passed the Senate by unanimous consent in August.)
Rep. George Miller (D-Calif.), chairman of the Education and Labor Committee and one of Pelosi’s lieutenants, wants Congress to act on the Elementary and Secondary Education Act reauthorization.
Bills that have been painstakingly negotiated may have to be overhauled if Republicans control the House next year or pick up half a dozen Senate seats.
Deals that were made to satisfy retiring senators will become moot, and an incoming class of as many as 19 freshman senators could raise fresh objections.
All pending bills die at the end of a Congress and must be reintroduced at the start of a new two-year term.
This means lawmakers will have to repeat the laborious process of holding committee hearings, markups and rounds of private negotiations before legislation is brought to the floor again in 2011 or 2012.
If Congress returns to Washington the week after the election and works right up until Christmas, it would have six weeks to pass legislation — assuming a week off for Thanksgiving, as is tradition.Julian Pecquet contributed to this article.