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Senate Faces Modest Agenda as Debt Limit Looms

The legislative snoozefest that has been the U.S. Senate this year isn’t likely to change anytime soon — with whatever ends up on the floor serving largely as legislative chum until the climactic vote on the debt limit expected in June.

Senate Democratic and Republican aides alike see relatively small issues, including the USA PATRIOT Act extension and nominations, as well as a series of political show votes, taking up the calendar in the meantime.

“Everybody’s just sort of getting ready for that [debt limit] fight,” a senior Democratic aide said. “The other stuff is just sort of biding time.”

Already this year, the Senate has had a week when it was in session when the only vote was on a nomination while the parties were locked in negotiations off-camera, and the chamber is again behind schedule on producing a budget for the next fiscal year — if it can actually get one done.

That’s not surprising — the Senate only rarely sees flurries of real action like what it accomplished during last year’s lame-duck session. And Senate Democrats don’t have much flexibility to bring much of an agenda to the floor. With a slim 53-47 margin and a host of moderate Democrats worried about big deficits and re-election fights next year, Senate Democratic leaders have been stuck in a defensive legislative crouch.

Even the modest agenda laid out by Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) has begun to stall. His first order of business this week will be to decide what to do with the small-business bill, which has already taken up a month of floor time but largely served as a vehicle for unrelated fights.

Reid threatened to spike the bill before the break instead of allowing a vote on Sen. Olympia Snowe’s (R-Maine) amendment that would require a review on all new regulations for their effect on small businesses.

“It appears now that it’s maybe an effort to create a lot of tough votes and never get to the end of this,” Reid said in a conference call with reporters last week.

Reid also said he would hold a vote on the House budget blueprint written by Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) — for the purpose of killing it — prompting Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) to retaliate by demanding a vote on President Barack Obama’s budget, which the president himself walked away from before the break when he proposed an additional $4 trillion in deficit reduction over the next 12 years. That kind of tit-for-tat show vote has dominated much of the Senate floor action this year.

Meanwhile, with a broader energy package bottled up in committee, Reid and Democrats plan to move quickly on a bill being drafted by Senate Finance Chairman Max Baucus (D-Mont.) that would eliminate oil company tax breaks, and redirect the money to clean energy investments and efficiency. There is some bipartisan support for getting rid of those tax breaks, with Ryan saying he supports ending corporate welfare including oil company tax breaks at a town hall last week, and other Republicans including Sen. Mark Kirk (Ill.) also backing the idea.

But the bill is still small potatoes relative to the fight over trillions of dollars in the debt limit battle. And other Republican leaders have denounced any cut in tax breaks for oil companies as a tax increase that they say will lead to higher gas prices, not lower.

Reid said that he’d like to move on to a broader energy bill that would include a renewable energy standard but that Republicans are blocking the move in committee.

One wild card is a possible debate and vote on the United States’ involvement in Libya’s civil war. Both parties are split internally on the issue, and party leaders haven’t been in a rush to take action. But backers and foes of U.S. conflict have been drafting resolutions that could be the basis of a debate on the Senate floor.

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