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House Dashes for the Finish

Leaders Aim to Exit Tonight

House Democrats have exit signs in their eyes.

In order to wrap up their work for the year in time for a delegation led by Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) to jet to an international climate change summit in Copenhagen, Democrats are set to do some hyper-legislating today.

On tap is a $626 billion Defense spending bill loaded with scaled-down patches for unemployment and other benefits; a two-month debt limit increase totaling about $200 billion; a roughly $150 billion jobs package, half paid for with money from the Troubled Asset Relief Program; and a short-term continuing resolution to give the Senate until next week to approve the Defense measure.

Democratic leaders started the week with a plan to send the Senate a massive package that jammed together the Defense spending bill with a long-term debt ceiling increase and the jobs package. Their decision to move a leaner Defense bill instead — and the jobs bill and a short-term debt extension separately — reflects an acknowledgment of reality in the chamber. It also reflects the desire of Democratic leadership to send its Members home for the holidays with no threat of returning after Christmas — though on the outside chance that the Senate amends the Defense bill, another House vote could still be required this year.

House leaders recognized that Senators, consumed with the health care debate, were unlikely to swallow whole the House jobs package. And objections from moderates in both chambers were complicating efforts to pass an increase in the debt limit up to $1.9 trillion aimed at carrying the federal government into December 2010 and punting the next difficult vote on the issue past the midterm elections.

Instead, House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) is leading negotiations with Blue Dog Democrats and Sen. Kent Conrad (D-N.D.) to pass a longer-term debt ceiling increase next year that will also include two top priorities for the fiscal hawks: enshrining pay-as-you-go budgeting into law and setting up a commission to tackle soaring entitlement spending.

“We’re dealing with reality here,— one House Democratic leadership aide said. “It’s nice to make a point and send something over there. By passing a jobs bill that’s separate, we still get to lay down our marker, but it doesn’t hold up the show for no real reason. It came down to, ‘What can the Senate get done?’ And the answer is, ‘Not very much.’—

The jobs bill has two components. The first, considered emergency spending and therefore not paid for with tax increases or spending cuts, extends funding for six months for unemployment and health benefits, food stamps, and Medicaid assistance to states. The second, paid for with redirected TARP funds, provides funding for infrastructure projects, credit for small businesses and aid to state and local governments to shore up public service jobs.

Appropriations Chairman David Obey (D-Wis.) dismissed criticism that TARP funds should be used instead to reduce the deficit. “TARP was used to assist Wall Street. Now the problem is on Main Street and we make no sort of apology whatsoever for trying to give the same amount of attention to Main Street needs as were given earlier to Wall Street needs,— he said.

Pelosi said she hopes the Senate will take up the jobs package quickly in January so President Barack Obama can sign it into law before he delivers the State of the Union address. “It is a bill that creates jobs, that meets the needs of those who are unemployed and puts us on a path to prosperity,— she said at a press conference unveiling the bill, officially dubbed the Jobs for Main Street Act.

Some top aides were grumbling, however, that the slow pace of Senate action — and the lack of White House involvement — means House Democrats are going home without tangible help for constituents struggling to find employment. “No one is at the table with us, so we’re acting alone,— one leadership aide said. “This doesn’t help the American people who don’t have jobs.—

The Defense measure also carries two-month patches for a number of items, including the Medicare reimbursement rate for doctors, the USA PATRIOT Act, the Surface Transportation Act, flood insurance and small-business loans, among others.

A grab-bag of tax breaks set to expire at the end of the year appears likely to be left off the end-of-year legislative train. At press time, staff were still discussing how to handle an extension of the estate tax, which expires at the end of the year.

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