Intensity on tap

Democrats predict that after a difficult summer, they will have a fruitful fall. The elections of 2006 and 2008 put Democrats’ governing skills under a microscope, and the party needs to prove itself in its effort to pass President Barack Obama’s top domestic agenda item — healthcare reform.

It was never going to be easy, but it looks far more difficult than it did just a few months ago. The House and Senate still have not passed legislation, though the lower chamber hopes to clear a bill this month or early next month. When the Senate will act is anyone’s guess.

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Unanswered questions abound, such as: Will the legislation have a public option? Will it have an employer mandate? How will it be paid for? Will taxes on the wealthy be increased? Will members of Congress participate in the new overhaul plan?

Lawmakers, from Senate Finance Committee Chairman Max Baucus (D-Mont.) to House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), are jockeying for position before Obama’s address to a joint session of Congress on Wednesday. Pelosi insists there must be a public option; Baucus does not.

The August town hall meetings have changed member positions on healthcare; some Democrats in the House promise constituents they will vote no on whatever comes to the floor this autumn.

What else is on the congressional agenda between now and Christmas? Climate change appears unlikely to have sufficient votes to pass the Senate, though Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.) wants to round up support over the next several weeks. Sen. Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) is working on immigration reform, but Obama recently said his goal is to sign that bill next year.

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) said it would be “terrific” to pass four more spending bills in the upper chamber in September. But if any of the dozen appropriations bills don’t become law by Sept. 30, Congress will have to pass a continuing resolution.

Other agenda items are financial regulatory reform, which has been derailed in the face of stiff industry opposition. The U.S. war in Afghanistan will also be heavily debated in coming weeks.

Meanwhile, Rep. Jim Oberstar (D-Minn.) and other Transportation Committee members want to pass a massive transportation reauthorization bill. The White House and Senate want to put off that measure until after the midterm elections that are still 14 months away.

Congress will soon need to decide whether to extend several expiring laws. Portions of the stimulus, including increased unemployment benefits and tax breaks for businesses and first-time homebuyers, are set to end in 2009.