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Senate Democrats Plan Pivot to Tax, Jobs Bill

Financial Reform Nears Final Vote, Reid Hopes

Senate Democrats are pushing to wrap up work before the Memorial Day recess on a series of must-pass bills and could dig into a package of tax break extensions and other jobs provisions as soon as Thursday.

Although no final decisions have been made, Democratic aides said Majority Leader Harry Reid is hoping to complete the relatively tame debate on financial regulatory reform by midweek — the Nevada Democrat is expected to file cloture on the bill today — in order to begin work on the extenders package.

That bill would delay by one year the expiration of several popular tax breaks and maintain a temporary extension of unemployment benefits as well as special health insurance benefits for the unemployed. Additionally, the bill will include “doc fix” language that would block scheduled reimbursement rate cuts over the next five years to doctors providing services paid for by Medicare and Medicaid.

The extenders package has been in legislative limbo for months as House and Senate Democrats wrangled over the types of offsets that would be included to pay for it. That dispute slowed progress to the point that the unemployment insurance program lapsed — forcing Congress to pass a short-term extension this spring.

But Democratic aides said the two chambers are close to an agreement and expect to be ready for a floor debate by Thursday. House and Senate Democrats are “working to have a finished package soon so that we can do it before we leave” for the Memorial Day recess, a Senate Democratic aide said, adding that the two sides are “getting very close.”

[IMGCAP(1)]But including the doc fix provisions — which would not be paid for and that Republicans say will add as much as $150 billion to the debt — could prove tricky. Federal spending and the national debt have become hot-button issues in this year’s elections. With moderate Democrats looking to bolster their fiscal hawk credentials, Reid could have a fight on his hands.

Nevertheless, Democrats argue they have the upper hand in the debate on financial reform and are eager to switch gears to jobs before going home to face their constituents for the one-week break in May that doubles as the unofficial kickoff of the campaign season.

“There’s a danger of staying on this,” Sen. Bob Casey said of financial reform. “If you’re legislating, and the other side is communicating, you’re in trouble.”

The Pennsylvania Democrat said party members “need to talk about what we’ve done” with constituents, on financial reform and on the handful of measures that will be brought up the next two weeks.

While aides predict financial reform will pass easily on a final vote, Reid still will need 60 votes for procedural motions to get there.

Sen. Ben Nelson, who had objections to the bill and initially joined Republicans in opposing the motion to call up the bill, said last week that he “wouldn’t want to see it shut down before everything that should have been dealt with has been dealt with.”

But the Nebraska Democrat noted that the measure was “getting better from the standpoint that Main Street is not being brought in as much.”

Republicans have also charged Democrats with slow-walking a handful of politically difficult amendments, including those relating to derivatives, to protect Sen. Blanche Lincoln before her primary election Tuesday.

The Arkansas Democrat faces a primary against challenger Bill Halter, and both her primary and the even more competitive primary for Sen. Arlen Specter (D-Pa.) the same day has affected the Senate’s schedule; the chamber is not expected to take any key votes Tuesday.

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