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Congress Faces Full Election-Year Agenda

Bogged down for months by a controversial health care bill, Congressional Democrats have had little time to devise their election-year agenda except to promise that whatever they do will be focused on “jobs.—

The imperative to shift gears became even more pronounced after Democrats lost their filibuster-proof 60-seat majority following Republican Scott Brown’s Jan. 19 upset victory over state Attorney General Martha Coakley in Massachusetts’ special election to replace the late Sen. Edward Kennedy (D-Mass.).

Republicans tagged Brown’s victory to public dissent over the long debate over health care reform, and Congressional Democrats acknowledged that they did not do a good job of both explaining their health care plan nor in zeroing in on economic issues.

But even before their devastating loss in Massachusetts, Democrats had signaled a desire to make this election year about job creation in a sop to voters who have listed it atop their concerns. But with the Democratic agenda so loosely defined as 2010 kicked off, the fight will be on among lawmakers for the best and most efficient ways to deal with the still-lagging economy.

“The economy has got to be the focus all year,— Senate Democratic Conference Vice Chairman Charles Schumer (N.Y.) said in early January. “But if the economy in March is in good shape or is getting in good shape, you might be able to focus more on deficit reduction and some other things. If it’s not in good shape, we’re going to have to keep focusing on jobs and the economy.—

But even as Democrats try to improve their electoral fortunes by boosting the country’s financial outlook, liberal base voters will likely find their calls for more controversial bills such as immigration reform and climate change legislation falling on deaf ears. Though both issues could attract bipartisan support and obviate the need for a filibuster-proof Democratic majority, Senate aides said that after that chamber’s bruising health care fight and the subsequent Senate defeat in Massachusetts, there is little appetite for dealing with thorny issues like immigration and climate change. House Democrats have already taken a rhetorical beating for passing a “global warming— bill, and Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) has already told her Members that the House will not take up an immigration bill unless the Senate goes first.

The first non-health-care agenda item on Senate Democrats’ list is a tailored “jobs— bill that would provide more federal funding and tax breaks for job creation in specific industries. After that, a measure to restructure financial regulation will likely be on tap. The House has already passed versions of both.

Democrats are hoping the overhaul of bank regulations will help them reconnect with voters concerned about the near-economic collapse at the end of 2008 and make the case that they are the agents of change they and the president campaigned to be last year. While they work on those two items, one Senate Democratic aide said leaders would work to identify other economic-tinged or consumer-friendly measures to champion.

One big item that House Democrats are pushing is a multiyear transportation package that would give Members tons of local projects to brag about back home and generate hundreds of thousands of jobs. Paying for that package, however, has been the sticking point.

There’s also talk of passing a scaled-down energy bill given the improbability that the Senate will take up a more robust climate change bill. A smaller energy measure would focus on incentives for clean energy jobs and possibly a mandate for utilities to use renewable electricity. Democrats also are planning to revise the No Child Left Behind law.

But there’s still a lot of unfinished business the Senate will need to squeeze into what could end up being another year packed with legislation. And the window for moving bills is further complicated by the looming November elections and the partisanship that accompanies them.

For example, the Senate has yet to complete work on an overhaul of student loans, extensions of the estate tax and the USA PATRIOT Act, and possibly more than one increase to the debt limit. Democrats are looking to package a debt-limit hike with a fiscal commission and pay-as-you-go budgeting rules.

Meanwhile, Congress will be pressed to finish up the annual appropriations bills as soon as possible in order to give Members plenty of time at home to campaign for re-election. But first Democrats will try to pass a budget blueprint, which could prove difficult if President Barack Obama proposes stiff budget cuts to slice the deficit. House liberals are already warning that they could push back hard against any cuts to social programs.

And as much as they may want to avoid controversy this year, Democratic leaders will likely be in a position of dealing with controversial national security issues such as Obama’s plan to close the Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, military prison and a potential supplemental spending bill for the troop increases in Afghanistan.

And gay rights advocates are pushing hard for Congress to repeal the “don’t ask, don’t tell— law that bans gays and lesbians from serving openly in the military.

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