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House Looks to the Senate to Go First

After a year of forcing tough votes on their vulnerable Members, House Democratic leaders are working to shield their Caucus from having to vote on two upcoming must-pass items — at least until there is House-Senate agreement.

Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) said Tuesday that Democrats still wanted to complete work before the upcoming Memorial Day recess on a war spending measure and on a package renewing expired tax breaks and extending unemployment insurance and other social safety net programs. But House leaders are sensitive to the fact that their Members have already been called upon to take tough votes on climate change legislation and health care reform only to see those bills stall — or their most controversial provisions stripped away — in the Senate. Leaders in both chambers are also considering sidestepping votes on the 2011 budget resolution that, while not a must-pass bill, is another spending-related measure that could put members in a difficult spot.

“Our leadership in every way, shape and form is looking to avoid having Members take votes that in any way could cause them concern,” one senior Democratic aide said.

When it comes to the extenders package — the final price tag of which remains in flux — and the war supplemental, Hoyer said Democratic leaders wanted to protect their Members from a repeat scenario. On the former, the Majority Leader said he’s urged House Ways and Means Chairman Sander Levin (D-Mich.) to strike agreement with Senate Finance Chairman Max Baucus (D-Mont.) before the House takes up the measure “so we will have some assurance that both houses will pass the same bill in a relatively short period of time.”

“Unlike some of the times in the past, when we’ve passed bills that the Senate said are nonstarters in their house, they’ve passed bills that we say [are] nonstarters in our house, that has not proved to be as productive as we’ve liked,” Hoyer added.

[IMGCAP(1)]Hoyer also endorsed the idea that the Senate take the unusual step of acting first on the war supplemental, the centerpiece of which is likely to be Obama’s $33 billion request to pay for ongoing military efforts in Iraq and Afghanistan. Although it’s still unclear what will also be included in the package, it is likely to include funding for relief efforts in Haiti, where a massive earthquake displaced millions and killed more than 200,000 people. Obama has requested $2.8 billion for the nation.

“We would certainly like to have them move the supplemental and send it over to us, and then we’ll take it up,” Hoyer said. “We think that’s more predictive of what can be done in the Senate. So that saves some time if the Senate does it first, and so we know we don’t have to go back and forth on it.”

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid acknowledged that he’d spoken to Hoyer on Tuesday morning about timing of the supplemental and which chamber would move first, but the Nevada Democrat added, “I haven’t made that decision yet.” Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) likewise did not rule out the possibility the Senate could act first, telling reporters that the supplemental “may begin in the Senate.”

On the tax package, meanwhile, Levin and Baucus have been meeting regularly and hope to reach agreement as soon as this week, Senate Democratic aides said. That would likely tee up House action next week. Levin and Baucus are said to be working to craft a compromise that can garner the votes needed to pass the Senate.

Baucus said he was “making a lot of headway” toward an agreement with Levin but stopped short of committing to finalizing a deal this week. One option Democrats are considering is adding new offsets that, in the words of one leadership aide, would make voting for unpaid for spending items “an easier pill to swallow” for moderate Democrats.

House Democrats are parrying the next move on the spending measures even as they brace for Republican critiques of relatively light workweeks. In three of the past four weeks, for example, the House has taken its first votes on a Tuesday and wrapped up by Thursday. “I think they could become the do-nothing Congress, sure,” National Republican Congressional Committee Chairman Pete Sessions (Texas) said last month in response to a question about the House agenda.

But Republicans spent the past 18 months focusing their attacks on what they have called Democratic overreaches, making it difficult to pivot now to claims of a do-nothing majority. Instead, some in their ranks are advancing a more nuanced argument: that Democrats presided over a massive expansion of government while dithering on job creation. The American people “want us to work together to stop the out-of-control spending spree and create jobs,” said Michael Steel, spokesman for House Minority Leader John Boehner (R-Ohio). “The fact that Democrats are refusing to grapple at all with those issues — the American people’s highest priorities — is certainly telling. The American people didn’t send us here to rename post offices.”

Democrats have a ready reply, pointing to the recent turnaround in job growth and the fact that much of their agenda is awaiting Senate action. Pelosi signaled as much last week, when she noted the Senate is still chewing over House-passed items such as financial reform and climate change legislation. “We had a tremendous lift to do,” she said.

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