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House Kicks Off Its Waiting Game

Hurry up and wait.

That’s the scenario House Democratic leaders have seemingly followed all year — rush to get bills through, only to wait for the Senate to act.

The House blitzed through all of its fiscal 2010 appropriations bills and the climate change bill before the August recess and finally passed its $1.2 trillion health care overhaul before the Veterans Day break.

“We have done an incredible amount of work in previous months that is now over in the Senate,— one senior Democratic aide said.

“We’ve struggled for years with the Senate’s lack of productivity,— added a Democratic leadership aide, who lamented that attaining a filibuster-proof 60-vote Democratic Senate majority hasn’t been all they had hoped for. “There doesn’t seem to be much of a difference between 51 and 60 in terms of Senate productivity.—

With four full weeks left on the House schedule this year, leaders will meet today to figure out what to put on the floor while they wait for the Senate to catch up. The Senate has yet to pass four of the 12 spending bills, has yet to take up climate change legislation and plans to spend much of the rest of the year tackling its version of health care reform.

House Democrats insist that while they have plowed through many of their big-ticket items already, they will find ways to keep busy. At least one major item remains firmly on the House agenda — a sweeping financial regulatory overhaul crafted by Financial Services Chairman Barney Frank (D-Mass.) that should pass after Thanksgiving.

“We’re not going to be twiddling our thumbs,— the senior aide said.

But numerous question marks remain. For instance, House Democratic leadership must decide whether they will have the appetite to push forward with a $500 billion transportation bill — or perhaps a smaller package that nonetheless jump-starts job-creating construction projects.

An extension of the transportation construction bill expires at the end of the year, and many top Democrats have been urging passage of the larger bill paid for by a new tax on financial transactions, so that Wall Street literally pays to rebuild Main Street.

Democratic leadership aides also note they plan to pass a stand-alone “doc fix— to prevent a 21 percent pay cut to doctors under Medicare at a cost of about $245 billion. An estate tax package with a similar price tag also appears likely. That package would ensure the tax continues at current law rates. The estate tax is scheduled to disappear in 2010 before snapping back to 55 percent in 2011 unless Congress acts. The Senate would have to go along with both measures, however, and an earlier effort to pass the doc fix as a stand-alone bill failed on the Senate floor. Getting a deal on either is complicated by a demand by Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) and Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) that any measures be accompanied by statutory pay-as-you-go legislation and by a renewed focus by the White House on long-term deficit reduction, given that both bills would widen the deficit.

House Democratic leaders are also looking at the possibility of passing some smaller jobs-focused measures, potentially including extensions of various pieces of the $787 billion stimulus package.

However, Senate Democratic leaders have talked about a jobs package as a priority for early 2010, and President Barack Obama’s jobs summit scheduled for December could pre-empt the House as well.

Appropriations conference reports are also on tap — with Democrats expecting the Commerce, Justice and science bill this week.

Congress will also have to act by Dec. 18 to pass an omnibus spending bill or an extension to the continuing resolution to keep the government operating, and Hoyer has already signaled the House could be in as late as Dec. 22 for votes. Likewise, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) has warned of Christmastime sessions.

There also are housekeeping items to take care of: the government is bumping up against the debt limit and needs another increase. Some Senators have talked about creating a fiscal commission to look at debt issues as part of a bill, noting the recent failure to pass the doc fix, and Hoyer has repeatedly endorsed the commission idea.

But Pelosi has remained opposed, reiterating before the Veterans Day break that she believes the existing committees in Congress are best able to deal with the deficit.

House Democrats are also looking to extend some expiring provisions of the USA PATRIOT Act, including roving wiretaps for suspected terrorists, but they face a dispute with the administration and Republicans over plans to curtail some of the extraordinary powers granted by the law.

Michael Steel, spokesman for House Minority Leader John Boehner (R-Ohio), suggested that Democrats work with Republicans on the economy: “Rather than twiddling their thumbs and waiting to see what the Senate does with Speaker Pelosi’s trillion-dollar government takeover of health care, Democratic leaders should scrap that job-killing boondoggle and work with Republicans to help the American people, who continue to ask, ‘Where are the jobs?’—

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