Thorny votes await lawmakers this week

The national debt, healthcare and the dispute over who can make airline travel safe from terrorists will dominate a contentious week in the Senate.

Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) will seek to cut off debate on the stalled nomination of Erroll Southers to head the Transportation Safety Adminstration (TSA).

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The week will also include votes to raise the federal debt ceiling and on a pay-as-you-go measure, while looming in the background will be what Democrats hope to be the final stages of the precarious healthcare negotiations.

Reid has charged the GOP with “playing politics” with the Southers nomination and has used the Christmas Day bombing attempt of a Detroit-bound airliner to push his confirmation through.

“Not only is this a failed strategy but a dangerous one as well, with serious potential consequences for our country,” Reid said in a statement.

The GOP’s concerns with Southers lie with Sen. Jim DeMint (R-S.C.) and a handful of others. DeMint blocked Southers’s nomination in mid-November after Southers gave evasive answers to a DeMint letter questioning his views on collective bargaining at TSA.

Questions about Southers inappropriately viewing personal files of acquaintances while he was an FBI official have also prompted six other GOP senators to write the White House to press for more information on the incidents.

A DeMint aide said the South Carolina senator is not necessarily going to insist on using procedural rules to extend the debate.

“The problem is, Reid has never reached out to Sen. DeMint for a time agreement on the nominee,” the aide said. “DeMint has said he would agree to something and that he’s not asking to burn all 72 hours of cloture time. But Reid hasn’t reached out.”

A senior Democratic aide said GOP leaders were indeed asked for a time agreement prior to the Senate's adjournment at Christmas. The aide said Republicans refused.

Looming over everything, however, will be the final stages of the health reform debate, as the Senate prepares to hold final votes on a bill being hammered out between the White House and House and Senate leaders.

Senators return for votes on Wednesday after the federal holiday for Martin Luther King Jr. and a procedural workday scheduled Tuesday. They are expected to immediately take up the nomination of Beverly Martin, a federal judge whom President Barack Obama has nominated to the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals.

Things will get thornier from there. Just before Christmas, as senators were voting on the healthcare bill, they were forced to approve a short-term increase in the federal debt ceiling. The House approved a $13 trillion ceiling last year, an increase of about $925 billion, but Senate Democratic leaders are expected to ask for a higher amount to avoid having to vote on another increase before the November elections.

Another looming controversy: An amendment by Sens. Kent Conrad (D-N.D.) and Judd Gregg (R-N.H.) to create a commission to study federal spending and recommend cuts. Republicans hammered Democrats throughout 2009 for runaway spending trends, making a vote on a commission a politically difficult situation.