Road Map: Recess Clock Is Ticking; Order Is Tall
Congressional Democrats are hoping to kick off a legislative sprint to the Memorial Day recess this week, but Senate Republicans are hoping to slow them to a crawl.
In the next 11 days, Democrats want to pass a sweeping financial regulatory reform bill, a nearly $60 billion war supplemental and a bill to extend unemployment benefits and a slew of expiring tax provisions.
That would be an ambitious schedule in the most bipartisan of times, but the anti-spending tea party zeitgeist sweeping the nation appears to have energized conservative Sen. Tom Coburn (R-Okla.), who has vowed to try to trip things up.
Coburn spokesman John Hart said Monday that Coburn — a perennial threat to quick Senate action — would “do everything in his power to block the supplemental unless it’s paid for. The American people understand that our debt and deficit are as much — or more — of an emergency’ than any item in the supplemental.”
The spokesman added that Coburn wants to hold Democrats to their pay-as-you-go rules that require nonemergency spending to be offset with spending cuts or tax increases. The supplemental for the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, which is coupled with disaster funding, has been designated “emergency” spending. That designation allows it to bypass PAYGO rules.
“For years, Democrats have complained that Republicans didn’t pay for the war,” Hart said. “Congress’ failure to pay for the war in the past doesn’t justify doing it again in the future.”
Hart said Coburn has voted against the last three war spending bills for this reason.
Regan Lachapelle, spokeswoman for Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.), volleyed back at Coburn’s gambit with a classic threat to keep the Senate in session through the Memorial Day recess in order to get the war measure and the tax extenders passed. It’s a threat that has often worked wonders on Senators ready for a break.
“We will stay in session as long as it takes to hold Wall Street accountable, create jobs, cut taxes and assist out-of-work Americans, and provide critical funding to our troops,” Lachapelle said. “It is up to the Republicans whether they will join us in doing so or continue their pattern of delay and obstruction when it comes to helping the American people.”
Republicans are also agitating over a proposed $23 billion education amendment that Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Chairman Tom Harkin (D-Iowa) has said he wants to attach to the supplemental. The amendment is intended to save tens of thousands of teachers’ jobs, but Republicans are already ripping it as another bailout.
To get the ball rolling on all that they hope to accomplish in the next two weeks, Reid filed a motion to end debate on the financial regulatory measure Monday evening. That sets up a Wednesday vote and could put the Senate in a position to pass the bill by Thursday.
If the House passes the tax extenders measure this week, the Senate could take it up Thursday, but Republicans are expected to try to trip that up too.
“Given the fact that extenders appear to be at least $150 billion in pure deficit spending and the White House wants to add a state [education] bailout of $25 billion on the backs of our troops, I think there will be a vigorous debate,” said one senior Senate GOP aide. “It remains to be seen how the timeline is affected by that debate, however.”
All of that could prevent the Senate from even beginning debate on the extenders measure until next Monday, leaving precious little time for the supplemental fight at the end of that week.
Given the threats to the schedule, some aides speculated that the tax extenders measure could be combined with the supplemental. Doing so, others said, could be more complicated than it’s worth.
House Democrats, meanwhile, want to make sure that they have agreement with the Senate on the tax package to avoid multiple votes on it, although they face a key deadline at the end of the month when unemployment and other benefits expire.
And with everything else on the agenda, it’s possible that the supplemental will slip in that chamber until after Memorial Day, a House leadership aide said.
But Democrats are eager for the fight over teachers.
“I would love to have a fight on the teacher money,” one leadership aide said. “Wouldn’t that be perfect for Democrats on the supplemental to say I want to support the troops and I want to support the teachers so they don’t lose their jobs because of the Bush recession?”
Leaders also still haven’t decided whether they will bring a 2011 budget to the floor, with discussions expected to continue Tuesday. The budget conundrum has plagued the Caucus for weeks, with no easy solution, even as Republicans have started to incorporate the failure to pass a budget into all of their attacks against the Democratic leadership.
House Budget Chairman John Spratt, who is facing a tough re-election battle this year, said last week he still thinks it is important to do, although he acknowledged that there are other ways to move forward on the annual appropriations bills. The South Carolina Democrat said it’s a net positive for conservative districts like his to have a document that lawmakers can run on and defend.
Others aren’t so sure and are wary about voting for a budget that despite expected cuts in domestic spending will nonetheless forecast record levels of debt.
The House also could take up the Defense authorization bill next week, potentially setting up a climactic showdown on gay rights.
Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) refused to commit last week to allowing a vote on an amendment that would repeal the “don’t ask, don’t tell” law banning openly gay people from serving in the military. Defense Secretary Robert Gates has asked Congress to hold off on a repeal, but backers, including Rep. Patrick Murphy (D-Pa.), are pushing hard for a vote.
Another gay rights bill, the Employment Non-Discrimination Act, continues to be kicked down the road and does not appear likely to come to the floor before Memorial Day. Moderate Democrats remain nervous about voting on that measure, particularly provisions protecting transgender people, especially when it has no clear path through the Senate.
Democrats also will be marking up a jobs package for small-business lending that could be ready for the floor next week, and they will bring back a science authorization bill derailed last week by a GOP anti-pornography amendment that gutted sections of it.