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Senate Democrats Have Full Agenda Ahead

(Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)
(Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)

Senate Democrats are in a race against the clock in order to consider all the must-pass legislation, such as a new highway bill and an overhaul of the Department of Veterans Affairs, alongside a host of election-year items aimed at drawing contrasts with the GOP.  

The Senate is poised to consider a bipartisan deal — drafted by Sen. Bernard Sanders, I-Vt., and Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz. — that would reduce wait times for medical care at the VA.  

“Details of the agreement are not in writing yet … they are being drafted,” Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid said Monday. Reid said he “will be happy to schedule a vote as soon as possible.”  

The bill has bipartisan urgency and momentum behind it to deal with the still-widening VA scandal.  

But Democrats will also consider a host of other bills aimed squarely at defining the GOP as the party of the rich and Democrats as the party of the people ahead of November. The latest iteration of their so-called fair shot agenda includes a vote expected this week on a bill championed by Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., and President Barack Obama, that would allow 25 million people the chance to refinance their student loans at today’s low rates. It would be paid for by a new mandatory minimum tax on millionaires known as the “Buffett Rule” for Warren Buffett — a poison pill for the GOP.  

(Obama suggested Monday voters hold politicians accountable for voting for the wealthy at the expense of students.)  

Sen. Lamar Alexander, the ranking member of the Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee, said the measure is a waste of scarce floor time, saying it would provide a mere $1-a-day break for former students.  

This “is one more example of why the American public has lost confidence in the leadership of the United States Senate,” the Tennessee Republican said, dismissing the Buffett Rule as “a class warfare tax.”  

The Senate has been even more sclerotic than usual this year, with bipartisan bills like a tax extenders package and an energy efficiency bill falling to disputes over amendments, and postures are expected to stiffen as the elections near.  

“The list of things with bipartisan support we need to do is long,” a senior Senate Democratic aide said. “The sooner Republicans stop obstructing for obstruction sake, the sooner we can get things done.”  

There are just seven legislative weeks left before the August recess.  

A new highway bill tops the list of must-pass items wanted by both parties, but it may also be the most vexing because lawmakers have yet to agree on how to pay for roads, bridges and other transportation items in a time when gas tax revenues are under pressure from rising vehicle mileage standards.  

Congress must act before the end of the summer when the highway trust fund runs out of money.  

Senate Finance Chairman Ron Wyden, D-Ore., has said he is “pulling out all the stops to find a funding solution to keep the Highway Trust Fund solvent” and wants to find a consensus by the end of the month.  

A short-term extension may be needed, a Democratic aide said.  

The Senate also is expected to start considering appropriations bills next week — more must-pass items.  

Senate Appropriations Chairwoman Barbara A. Mikulski, D-Md., has said she may seek to package a few spending bills together to save time.  

But appropriations bills will face the usual tussle with Republicans over amendments — as Democrats look to protect vulnerable senators before the elections.  

“They don’t want to have votes that expose their members to tough political issues,” said Republican Conference Chairman John Thune of South Dakota.  

“I think Sen. Reid will continue what he’s been doing procedurally,” Thune continued. “But then, you know, we are always hopeful.”  

A lot of issues are looking for fast-shrinking floor time.  

The Senate is expected to push to reauthorize the Export-Import Bank, which helps support American exports and is backed by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, before Sept. 30. Democrats support renewing the bank, but some conservative Republicans have called for ending it, arguing it is wasteful corporate welfare.  

The bank “exists to dole out taxpayer-backed loan guarantees to help American exporters,” said Sen. Mike Lee, R-Utah, in an April floor speech. “Most of the benefits go to large corporations that are perfectly capable of securing private financing anywhere in the world. That is to say, Congress allows Ex-Im Bank to risk taxpayer money unnecessarily to subsidize well-connected private companies.”  

Aides said the issue would mostly depend on what can be passed by the Republican-run House. House Financial Services Chairman Jeb Hensarling, R-Texas, has forcefully opposed renewing the bank.  

Another issue considered must-pass is renewing the Terror Risk Insurance Act, seen as critical to the real estate industry, since lenders typically require terrorism insurance to be obtained by owners of large or iconic real estate projects, especially in large and gateway American cities. The law expires at the end of the year.  

The Senate Banking Committee unanimously approved its bill last week. A Senate Democratic aide said the Senate bill has the backing of industry and is expected to win relatively strong support once it comes to the floor.  

Reid’s agenda also includes debating a constitutional amendment that would allow Congress to regulate contributions and spending in federal elections — something that allows him to beat up on his favorite target, the billionaire Koch brothers.  

The Senate Judiciary Subcommittee on the Constitution, Civil Rights and Human Rights will mark up the proposal Wednesday and Reid is likely to put it on floor, where it will almost certainly end up as cannon fodder.  

Other major bills expected to make floor appearances later this year — perhaps in a lame-duck session — include passage of the National Defense Authorization Act and a return of the tax extenders package, aides said.  

Niels Lesniewski contributed to this report.