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Democrats Begin Planning Fall Exit Strategy

With Bipartisan Cooperation Fading as Elections Near, Leaders See Few Real Legislative Opportunities

They’re just back from recess, but skittish House Democrats are already eyeing the exits.

With only a few weeks before the August break, House Democratic leaders aren’t planning action on many big bills, and they are suggesting that how much they attempt to tackle in September will hinge on what action the Senate takes in the next few weeks.

And although the House is slated to be in session for four weeks after Labor Day, Democrats are already considering letting Members go home to campaign prior to the Oct. 8 target adjournment date, particularly in the absence of easy legislative pickings.

“If there’s no pressing issues, and we’ve taken care of most of our responsibilities, if it can be moved up — great,” said a senior Democratic aide.

Majority Whip Dick Durbin speculated that the Senate also would try to wrap things up as quickly as possible after Labor Day.

“There’s a genuine feeling that we need to be back home, and I think Members would like to return in October,” the Illinois Democrat said, noting that the bipartisanship has waned so much that it is unlikely Democrats could move many more bills prior to the midterms anyway. “The Republicans in the Senate shifted into general election mode weeks ago, and since then, we have been struggling to get the 60th vote on issues that should have been routine.”

Democrats are still trying to pass three major outstanding items — an unemployment insurance extension, an emergency war supplemental and a Wall Street reform bill — giving their Members legislative accomplishments to tout at home.

The other most likely thing on the schedule for the fall is a stopgap measure to keep the government running past Oct. 1. Lawmakers appear headed toward an omnibus spending bill this year, and they would likely wait to act on that legislation in a lame-duck session.

One Democratic leadership aide said the House could consider one or more of the 12 individual spending bills prior to the elections. Appropriations Chairman David Obey (D-Wis.) has indicated that decisions about which individual spending bills to bring to the floor will be made with an eye toward which bills the Senate is likely to consider.

[IMGCAP(1)]But the Senate appears to be focused on policy measures. Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) is not giving up on passing a narrowly focused energy bill before the August recess, and that measure — or any number of House bills to respond to the Gulf Coast oil spill — could see floor action in the fall, aides said.

Durbin characterized an energy bill as the one major legislative item that the Senate could take up in September if Democrats are not able to pass that measure before the August break.

“We’re still debating the possibility of an energy bill here, when to bring it up and what to include,” Durbin said. “That’s an active issue that we’re discussing.”

Senate Democrats may also try to get a vote on a bill to increase credit to small businesses, which the House passed last month, as part of their theme of emphasizing job creation.

Democratic aides also have mentioned the possibility of trying to pass legislation reauthorizing the Federal Aviation Administration and overhauling the nation’s food safety programs, both of which are awaiting Senate action.

Durbin said a Tuesday afternoon meeting between Senate Democratic leaders and Obama focused on formulating an endgame that emphasizes bills that have the best chance of making it to the president’s desk.

“We’re trying to look — in realistic terms — about where we have bipartisan support to pass a bill and where we have the time to do it,” Durbin said.

Any politically challenging issues — such as extending some of the Bush-era tax cuts set to expire at the end of the year — most likely will wait until after the elections, although Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) on Tuesday did not rule out the possibility that the House could take up that issue before then.

“The goal was to get it done before they expire,” Hoyer said.

House Republicans, meanwhile, will use the possibility of a lame-duck session to warn voters that Democrats will try to pass in a rush everything they were not able to get through during the regular legislative year.

“Democrats have hinted at pursuing cap-and-tax, additional taxes and spending, and even ‘card check’ all in a lame-duck session,” said one House GOP aide. “We are going to call for the Democrats to not use a lame-duck session to pass these items which people do not want.”

A second House Republican aide said the administration has signaled that it wants Democrats to use the lame-duck session to get “big things done.”

Michael Steel, spokesman for Minority Leader John Boehner (R-Ohio), said Democrats clearly are not trying to get bills passed before then.

“Right now, House Democrats are doing practically nothing, even though we face nearly 10 percent unemployment and they are weeks past the deadline Secretary of Defense [Robert] Gates set for the troop funding bill,” Steel said. “My guess is that September will see Democrats attempt to defy the laws of physics by actually doing less than nothing.”

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