Leaders of the House and Senate will begin a summer sprint this week to push through a huge list of Democratic priorities amid a backdrop of a still-weak economy, an out-of-control disaster in the Gulf of Mexico, a jittery electorate with a distaste for incumbents
, and a federal deficit that is already projected to hit a record $1.5 trillion this year.
It's a tough environment for Democrats, made doubly precarious by the looming November mid-term elections, but Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid said Monday he's ready to get started. "The work period between now and July 4 is short, but our to-do list is long," Reid said as he laid out more than a dozen items he wants the Senate to take up before the end of the month.
First up on Reid's Senate agenda this week will be a package of tax cuts, coupled with a measure to extend unemployment benefits, that Republican senators have threatened to block because it will add billions to the federal deficit. Reid accused GOP senators Monday of siding with corporate interests over the needs of struggling Americans. "These benefits have now expired -- and so has our patience for excuses," he said.
After that will be a blitz of bills designed to keep the focus on Democrats' priority of jobs and the economy, while also recognizing Congress' need to respond to the BP oil spill, and its responsibility in managing the wars overseas.
"Clearly we are focused on the oil spill, but there are other legislative items we have to get done this work period as well," said Katie Grant, a spokeswoman for House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer, who added that in addition to Reid's items, the House could also take up a federal budget blueprint and a plan to impose sanctions on Iran for moving forward with its nuclear program.
The end result is a Congressional calendar stuffed with populist themes, must-do items, and a collection of potential controversies ranging from ending the ban on gays in the military to keeping tax breaks for hedge fund managers and leaving the detainee prison at Guantanamo Bay open for business. At the end of June, for good measure, the Senate Judiciary Committee will begin the confirmation hearings for Supreme Court nominee Elena Kagan.
Conspicuously absent from any Democrats' to-do list is immigration reform, a potentially explosive issue that no Republican has agreed to support. Without a GOP co-sponsor in the Senate, Democrats say they won't move forward on the issue this year.
One potentially damaging political dynamic looming over Democrats' big-ticket plans is fatigue among moderates over the thought of approving still more deficit spending. "There's heartburn over spending," said a senior Democratic aide. "Members are wary of anything that's not paid for, even if it's a pressing need."
Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell took that a step further, calling the Democrats' summer agenda "fiscal recklessness, plain and simple."
"As we work to stem the crisis in the Gulf, Congress cannot continue ignore another pressing crisis - an exploding federal debt that threatens our very way of life," McConnell said Monday.
Mary Vought, a spokeswoman for the House Republican Conference, said that GOP members on the House side will not only focus on spending, but will also continue to hammer Democrats on the recently passed health care legislation, which Republicans say remains unpopular with most Americans.
"With unemployment still hovering near 10 percent, Democrats continue to put spending and increased government before creating jobs, House Republicans will continue to draw attention to the damaging effects of Obamacare and focus on pro-growth policies that get our nation back to work," Vaught said.
Here are the top items on Congress' agenda in what is sure to be the first month of a long, hot summer:
The Senate will take up a House-passed "extenders" bill on Tuesday, a $116 billion measure to extend several expiring tax cuts and programs, including about $40 billion to extend unemployment benefits and health insurance for people looking for jobs through the end of the year, and $23 billion to put off the planned rate cut for doctors who treat Medicare
patients. A spokeswoman for Reid said he will also introduce a bill later this month to encourage small businesses to hire more workers.
A renewed priority for Reid is passing a comprehensive energy bill that cleared the House, but has languished in the Senate for the last year. That effort has gotten new life in the wake of the BP disaster and could move forward as a combination of bills designed to wean Americans off of foreign oil by capping carbon emissions, expanding domestic nuclear power and paying for research into new energy technology.
"This spill underscores our need for a new energy policy," Reid said, arguing for Congress to fund clean and renewable energy projects. "We need better options than oil, and we needed them yesterday."
Two major pieces of legislation -- the annual defense spending bill and an emergency spending bill for Iraq and Afghanistan -- will come up for House and Senate votes in June.
The first, the Defense Authorization Bill, was cleared the House at the end of May. But the $726 billion package must also be approved by the Senate and will be complicated by language added to lift the ban on gays in the military. Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) has threatened to filibuster the bill if the plan remains intact. Another controversial provision strips out funding for any prison on U.S. soil to accept prisoners from Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, essentially forcing the prison to stay open indefinitely.
On the House side, Democratic leaders could struggle to pass the $59 billion emergency spending bill to fund the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, including the surge of 30,000 troops requested by President Obama. House liberals have already warned they'll vote no, and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi called a similar bill last year harder to pass than health care reform.
When the Supreme Court issued its decision in Citizens United v. FEC
lifting restrictions on corporate and union spending in federal elections, Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) called it "poisonous," "un-American," and "a threat to our democracy."
Congress will likely vote on bills from Schumer and Rep. Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.), which they introduced in February
, to limit the impact of the Supreme Court's decision. The bills would ban donations from certain types of corporations, including foreign companies, TARP recipients, and federal contractors, and require full disclosure for voters of what companies are doing to influence the elections. House and Senate aides say Democrats want the bill passed as soon as possible and signed into law so that it can take effect before the November elections.
Wall Street Reform
The new rules for Wall Street have passed the House and Senate, but are in conference where key differences have to be hammered out. The biggest discrepancy comes courtesy of Sen. Blanche Lincoln (D-Ark.), who put in tough regulations requiring large banks to spin off their derivatives trading units. A Lincoln loss Tuesday could imperil the measure, but the rest of the bill -- including new powers for the Federal Reserve, a new agency for financial consumer protection, and new regulations on hedge funds-- will likely win final congressional approval this month.
Last but not least will come Elena Kagan's confirmation hearings in the Senate Judiciary Committee, now scheduled for the last week in June. The current solicitor general of the United States, and possibly the fourth woman to serve on the high court, has had mostly cordial meetings with Democrats and Republicans on the committee, with nary a filibuster threat in sight. Without an unexpected and still undiscovered controversy, Kagan's hearings could surprisingly be the least heated event of the summer.