New York Times
Congress returns this week to face an agenda stuffed with difficult, high-profile issues that will test the ability of Democrats and the White House to deliver health care, energy and spending legislation while simultaneously contending with a Supreme Court nomination.
“This is where the rubber meets the road,” said Rahm Emanuel, the White House chief of staff, who will be central to trying to meet a daunting timetable for making significant progress this summer on measures sought by President Obama.
While acknowledging the challenge, Mr. Emanuel and others say expanded Democratic majorities in the House and the Senate have defied expectations so far and won approval of a series of contentious bills, including the $787 billion economic stimulus package, enacted a budget and finished off the spring with a series of consumer-oriented economic measures.
But Republicans say the earlier legislation could prove to have been fairly easy in comparison with the coming battles on health care and energy because Democrats have yet to find a balance among their own members of Congress, let alone with Republicans.
“It is pretty clear that both sides have a lot they want to get done in a limited amount of time on issues that don’t yet have a lot of consensus,” said Don Stewart, a spokesman for Senator Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, the Republican leader.
It is a pivotal moment for Democrats. Lawmakers say polls point to a sense of public readiness for major legislation, particularly on health care. Democrats have hefty majorities in the House and the Senate, where they are on the cusp of reaching the 60 votes needed to break any filibuster.
Mr. Obama remains popular and retains the momentum of his first months in office. A failure to achieve a breakthrough in some policy areas would be a significant setback, both politically and substantively, heading into the 2010 midterm elections.
Democrats at both ends of Pennsylvania Avenue say they expect to succeed and to enlist some level of Republican support in the bargain. But to do so, they will have to overcome disagreements within their own party on the details of complex legislation governing health care, climate change, taxes and overall federal spending.
One such division emerged last week as a new health care proposal being developed by Senator Edward M. Kennedy, the Massachusetts Democrat who is chairman of the health committee, was viewed as leaning more toward public coverage than the approach being pursued by Senator Max Baucus, Democrat of Montana and chairman of the Finance Committee. The two issued a joint statement on Saturday saying they intended to produce “similar and complementary legislation that can be quickly merged into one bill for consideration on the Senate floor before the August recess.”
In the House, where the focus has been more on climate change legislation, the leadership intends to push a carbon emissions proposal from the Energy and Commerce Committee to the floor in the coming weeks to allow lawmakers to focus on health care at the committee level.
Either a health care or an energy bill would typically be enough to consume an entire Congressional summer. Now the Senate will also have to contend with a Supreme Court confirmation hearing, with Judge Sonia Sotomayor, the president’s nominee to replace Justice David H. Souter, to begin meeting with senators on Tuesday. Members of the Judiciary Committee, which will review the nomination, are also engaged in the health care and energy debates, complicating the logistics of those issues.
At the same time, Democrats are also trying to complete the 12 annual spending measures by the Oct. 1 start of the fiscal year, a goal Congress has been unable to meet in recent years. Those measures contain scores of possibilities for potential conflict, including whether to provide money to close the detention facility at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba — a decision Congress temporarily sidestepped before Memorial Day.
Hoping to squeeze all the spending bills through the House by August, Representative Steny H. Hoyer, the Maryland Democrat and majority leader, has warned lawmakers to prepare for long hours and full weeks in June and July.
“House committees have been very busy the first half of this year, and therefore over the next two months we have a tremendous amount of work to bring to the floor, hopefully to include major health care, energy and appropriations legislation,” Mr. Hoyer said in a statement.
Congress also hopes to move forward with an overhaul of how financial institutions are regulated, with administration and Congressional plans to be rolled out in the next few weeks. But the outlook for completing it by the end of the year is mixed, given the complex issues involved and the lobbying power of the industry.
Other difficult topics are also percolating, like new tobacco regulations the Senate could consider this week. Congress is also likely to be distracted by simmering side issues like the disagreement between Speaker Nancy Pelosi and the C.I.A over terrorism suspect interrogations and a federal inquiry into ties between lawmakers and Pentagon contractors.
But Democrats are optimistic about their overall prospects.
“Nobody is underestimating the steep incline of this,” Mr. Emanuel said. “But there has been a high level of confidence building on the capability and capacity of the Congress because it has it hit every major legislative mark to date.”