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Road Map: A Lot of Work Remains for Lawmakers in 2009

Congressional Democrats are going to have to step up the pace a bit if they hope to do all those things they promised before the end of the year.

[IMGCAP(1)]For all practical purposes, there are only about eight workweeks left in 2009 for the majority to pass sweeping health care reform, fund the federal government for the next year and throw the still sluggish economy a bone.

The tight timeline makes it next to impossible to get climate change legislation or banking regulatory reform to the Senate floor, but the House still hopes to do a financial regulatory reform bill and already passed its global warming measure this summer.

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) has blamed Republicans for much of the delay on the spending bills, in particular, and continues to gear up for a long slog on health care.

“Sen. Reid wants to use the balance of this year’s legislative calendar to focus on bringing relief to the millions of American families, many in Nevada, who are struggling as our economy continues to recover,— Reid spokesman Jim Manley said. “In order to address as many issues as possible, Republicans need to put partisanship aside so they can become engaged partners in governing. So far, they’ve taken every opportunity they can to stall important legislation and slow down progress on a number of key issues — the American people expect and deserve more.—

Still, it won’t be just Republicans clamoring for debate time on health care in the Senate, and those deliberations are likely to eat up the entire month of November, if not some time in December. Assuming Democrats can get their version off the floor by Thanksgiving, the health care conference report with the House will probably eat up a week or two in December — a month in which there are really only three full workweeks.

Senate Democrats acknowledged Monday that the health care debate may not start on the floor next week as Reid had hoped. Instead, it’s more likely to begin the first week of November, one senior Senate Democratic aide said. Reid met with White House officials and the relevant committee chairmen last night to craft the bill that will come to the floor, and he still aims to have that process finished by the end of this week.

But Reid has promised to wait for a cost estimate on the package from the Congressional Budget Office before beginning work on the floor, and that may postpone action into November, the senior aide said.

That tentative timeline will make it difficult for Democrats to get the health care bill off the floor by Turkey Day, despite the fact that holidays and recesses often serve as the perfect deadlines to force Congress to act. If debate does not start until the week of Nov. 2, the Senate is looking at a little over two weeks for debate, given Members are expected to take a short break Wednesday, Nov. 11 for Veterans Day and not return until the next Monday or Tuesday. Thanksgiving is the following week.

In the House, where things move more quickly, the health care debate is likely to last no more than a few days, if that. But Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) said last week that a vote would be unlikely to occur before the week of Nov. 2.

In the meantime, the Senate continues to slog through its appropriations bills; the House has passed all 12. Only three have been sent to President Barack Obama, and a stopgap spending bill to keep the government funded expires Oct. 31. By law, spending bills are supposed by passed by the end of the government’s fiscal year, Sept. 30.

However, another continuing resolution will likely be needed. The Senate hit a snag last week on the Commerce, Justice and science spending bill as Democrats and Republicans disputed which amendments should be offered. Some conference reports are ready for prime time, and the chamber could do the Homeland Security bill by the end of the week, aides said.

Still, it’s becoming increasingly likely that Democrats will opt to pass a “mini-bus— appropriations bill in which they mash together three or four spending bills into one at the end of the year, aides said.

Just as Democrats started out the year pushing economic recovery legislation, the House is urging the Senate to beef up an unemployment benefits measure with other targeted provisions to try to stimulate sectors of the economy. Of course, Democrats have been careful to note that this would not be a “stimulus— bill.

Though Democrats and Republicans are still haggling over the parameters for debate, the provision that has the best chance of hitching a ride on the jobless benefits bill is a proposal by Sen. Johnny Isakson (R-Ga.) to extend the homebuyers’ tax credit. The House wants to add a boost for food stamps, among other things.

But the senior Senate Democratic aide said any measure targeted at the economy is going to need some intervention from Obama because Congress has not yet devised how to pay for some of the proposals floating around.

“The White House has got to lay down some markers,— the aide said.

Finally, few Senate Democrats are willing to say publicly that climate change legislation is going to be pushed into next year, but a second senior Senate Democratic aide said the debate would be “too bruising— to attempt after the ups and downs of health care.

Senate committee action on that global warming legislation is about all that will happen this year, aides said.

“The political fight is too hard to take on right after you do health care,— the second aide said.

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