Post-recess, budget battles could still dominate lawmakers' attention

Lawmakers are about to get the only thing they might have wanted more desperately than a debt-ceiling deal: time away from Washington. 

Suitcases in hand, members could be seen dashing for the exits at the Capitol on Monday and Tuesday after the chambers approved legislation to raise the debt ceiling and cut spending. 

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Sen. Jon Kyl (R-Ariz.) predicted that the acrimony of the long debt debate would fade once lawmakers have a few weeks back in their districts.

“There were a lot of ruffled feathers in the process,” Kyl said. “But we have the month of August to all go back and be with our families and come back with happy faces.”

But the escape from partisan battle will only be temporary. When lawmakers return in September, there will be a number of difficult, intractable issues waiting on the doorstep.

Many Democrats are concerned that their push to focus on job creation and other issues will once again be shoved aside by budgetary matters once the recess ends.


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“We need to move forward,” Sen. Chris Coons (D-Del.) told The Hill, noting that his more than eight months in the Senate have been dominated by partisan sparring matches like last year’s debate over the Bush tax rates and this year’s over the deficit. 

“I’m looking forward to going to Delaware and working really hard to improve job creation,” he said.

But Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) said Democrats shouldn’t think the debt debate is behind them.

“We don’t have a choice,” Rubio said. “We’ll either continue the [deficit] discussion or the discussion will continue to chase us. These issues aren’t going away.”

There are plenty of other substantial items pending on the legislative agenda, including languishing trade deals, tax reform and a surface transportation bill. Members of the Senate Finance Committee are trying to find offsets for the transportation bill, according to an aide, in order to move it forward.

In recent weeks, Democrats and Republicans have been unable to break an impasse on the trade deals with South Korea, Panama and Colombia. The Obama administration has worked hard this year to win approval of the trade deals, arguing they would give a much-needed boost to the economy. 

Top officials in both parties have also expressed an interest in ramping up the push for tax reform. 

But the deal top policymakers reached to raise the debt limit also ensures that deficit reduction will remain front-and-center for much of the fall, because it forms a bipartisan, 12-lawmaker panel that will work to find new deficit cuts. 

Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.), a longtime proponent of overhauling the tax code, told reporters that he would press the case for tax reform with the special committee, which has a November deadline.

“Pro-growth tax reform generates revenue from the private sector,” Wyden said, calling that an outcome both sides can support.

With the 2012 fiscal year now less than two months away, the appropriations process also looks likely to be at or near the top of lawmakers’ lists when they return.

And Republicans — feeling momentum is on their side in the deficit debate — wouldn’t have it any other way.

Democrats in both chambers signaled Tuesday that they hope other issues do leap to the forefront in September.

“We cannot afford to have any more distractions,” Rep. Rosa DeLauro (D-Conn.) said at a Capitol news conference on Tuesday. 

“This is a nation that’s been built on bricks and mortar and fiber-optics, and we’ve got to get back to doing that again,” added DeLauro, a key House appropriator.

Republicans said Tuesday that they have been able to focus on both jobs and reducing deficits for months. Kyl blamed the Obama administration for not submitting the trade deals, which are stalled at least in part due to a partisan dispute over a program that tries to help American workers displaced by trade.

“The administration wasn’t willing to send them up here. They could’ve gotten done,” said Kyl, the Senate’s No. 2 Republican. “There is a process by which they can get done.”

Mike Lillis and Erik Wasson contributed.