Dems see agenda slipping

There is a growing sense among Democrats that they will not be able to accomplish the entire agenda leaders set for 2009, pushing major policy debates into the midterm election year.

Concerns over the cost of overhauling the nation’s healthcare system have served as a wake-up call to lawmakers.

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They had planned for a busy summer of healthcare and climate change debate, a dozen spending bills, a defense authorization and hearings on President Obama’s first Supreme Court nominee.

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) even promised to add a sweeping overhaul of immigration to that list.

But the revelation that revamping the nation’s healthcare model could greatly exceed $1 trillion over the next 10 years, along with an intra-party debate in the House on climate change legislation, has lawmakers feeling the weight of the packed agenda and sensing the need to narrow the list.

“There is a risk of not doing anything by trying to do too much,” Sen. Ben Nelson (D-Neb.) said. “I think there is going to be a narrowing-down as time goes on.”

Sen. Frank Lautenberg (D-N.J.) said it would be “irresponsible” not to tackle all the “burning issues” voters charged their representatives with addressing.

“When the rubber hits the road, it’s a different thing,” Lautenberg said. “You find out as you get into the details that it can’t carry.”

Many Democrats are quick to blame Republican opposition for stalling progress on policy issues, saying the minority refuses to back anything the majority moves.

But House Agriculture Committee Chairman Collin Peterson (D-Minn.) kept his party from advancing a climate change bill backed by Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) this past month, frustrated the bill would raise energy costs for those in farm states.

A floor vote is expected Friday — nearly a month after the House Energy and Commerce Committee completed its work on the bill — and Peterson is expected to back the measure, now that concessions were made.

But Peterson’s objections and the time it took to sort them out illustrate that problems can surface on both sides of the aisle.

“If either party wants to block it, it won’t happen,” said Sen. Ben Cardin (D-Md.), who acknowledged he was uncertain about the prospect of GOP cooperation after Republican senators blocked a relatively non-controversial tourism bill earlier this week.

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“We’ll get it done, but it might take us into 2010,” he said.

Reid, for one, is quite pessimistic about Republican cooperation in the coming months on healthcare and climate change.

“No one claims the answer is obvious, but everyone knows we must work toward one,” he said on the Senate floor. “Yet if Republicans refuse to find common ground on the easy things, how will we do so on the hard ones?”

Members of the Senate Finance Committee say they will begin marking up healthcare reform after the July 4 recess, at the earliest. Meanwhile, members of the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions (HELP) Committee plan to extend the markup of their own healthcare proposal into July.

Democrats had hoped that both committees would finish their work by the end of June.

Preoccupation over healthcare has steered senators away from climate change.

A meeting Sens. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.) and Mark Warner (D-Va.) held Tuesday to discuss House climate change legislation conflicted with an all-day HELP Committee markup of its healthcare proposal.

Sen. Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio), who expects to be a vocal participant in the climate change debate, said he is focusing on healthcare reform instead. Brown said he hoped to turn to the climate debate once healthcare reform begins to “wind down.”

Even though the House seems to have settled its intra-party dispute over climate change, Democratic senators say they are in no rush to take up the issue.

“It’s a very ambitious agenda,” said Sen. Mary Landrieu (D-La.). “The healthcare debate is much more mature and I’m glad we’re moving first on it.

“I think this energy piece is just going to have to stew a little bit,” she said.

President Obama’s climate change proposal ran into stiff Democratic opposition when he unveiled his budget proposal earlier this year. Democratic concerns were so intense that Sen. Kent Conrad (D-N.D.), chairman of the Senate Budget Committee, pledged to withhold granting a special procedural protection, known as reconciliation protection, for climate change legislation.

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The desire of some Democrats in both chambers to postpone action on climate change does not sit well with Pelosi, who has made it her flagship issue.

Healthcare reform has also delayed action on financial regulation reform. Sen. Chris Dodd (D-Conn.), chairman of the Senate Banking Committee, is leading the HELP markup of healthcare reform in the absence of Sen. Edward Kennedy (D-Mass.), who is battling cancer.

Sen. Mike Enzi (Wyo.), the ranking Republican on HELP, said Dodd is “kind of drinking out of a fire hose right now.”

Sen. Charles Schumer (N.Y.), the vice chairman of the Senate Democratic Conference, has pushed hard for the Senate to take up immigration this year. But White House officials have suggested that the issue will wait for a while.

“We know the votes aren’t there right now,” White House press secretary Robert Gibbs told reporters on Friday.

Senate Democrats have also planned to confirm nominee Sonia Sotomayor to the Supreme Court before the start of the August recess.

Senate Republicans said Wednesday they would press for a thorough examination and discussion of her record, a process that will consume precious floor time.

“We’re not getting all the documentation that we asked for,” said Sen. Orrin Hatch (Utah), a senior Republican on the Judiciary panel. “Some of it is voluminous.” Republicans are especially concerned about Sotomayor’s ruling on gun-ownership rights.

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