Congress returns to an 'intense' opening

There’s impetus to move quickly on the economy though some seats are empty.

Jim Young/Reuters
The U.S. Capitol Building is seen at sunrise in Washington November 17, 2008.

With more robust majorities in both houses of Congress and a deepening global financial crisis, Democrats aim for a quick start to the 111th Congress, including swift passage of an economic recovery plan expected to cost between $850 billion and $1 trillion.

Not since President Franklin D. Roosevelt and the New Deal have public expectations been so high – or so acute – at the start of a new Congress.

“Economists from across the political spectrum agree that if we don’t act swiftly and boldly, we could see a much deeper economic downturn that could lead to double-digit unemployment and the American Dream slipping further and further out of reach,” said President-elect Barack Obama in a radio address on Saturday.

In the two weeks between the convening of a new Congress on Tuesday and Inauguration on Jan. 20, House Democrats plan to move legislation on issues key to their base – bills making it easier for workers to sue for pay discrimination and organize a union – then move toward votes on a plan to create some 3 million new jobs.

Elements of the plan include doubling renewable energy production and renovating public buildings to make them more energy efficient, rebuilding the nation’s roads, bridges, and schools, computerizing medical records to save costs, and cutting taxes for 95 percent of American workers.

Democrats are also ramping up new legislation to overhaul the nation’s health-care system and to leverage a move toward alternative energy sources. The Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee holds its first hearing on energy security issues on Jan. 8.

At the same time, lawmakers are grappling with the unfinished business of the last Congress, including completion of most of the appropriations bills for FY 2009, which began on Oct. 1. For now, the government is funded by a stopgap measure that expires on March 6.

“The opening days of the Congress will be intense,” said Speaker Nancy Pelosi in a letter to House members on Dec. 30.

Their colleagues in the Senate have the added distraction of bruising battles over two vacant seats. The outcome of the Senate race in Minnesota race is bogged down in a recount and related legal challenges that could go on for months. The appointment to fill the seat vacated by President-elect Obama is tied up with the ongoing criminal investigation of Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich (D) over allegations that he tried to sell the seat.

Senate Republicans say they will refuse to seat Democrat Al Franken of Minnesota, who held a narrow lead in the latest recount, until all legal options of the incumbent GOP Sen. Norm Coleman are exhausted.

Senate leaders on both sides of the aisle object to the seating of former Illinois Attorney General Roland Burris, appointed by Governor Blagojevich to fill out the last two years of Obama’s seat. Obama, who has no vote in the outcome, says he also opposes seating Mr. Burris.

But despite the bigger Democratic margins – at least 78 seats in the 435-seat House and 16 seats in the 100-seat Senate – bipartisan support remains a key to moving big legislation in the 111th Congress.

Even with at least 57 Senate seats, Democrats are short of the 60 votes needed to break a filibuster, if all 41 Republicans vote together. And in the runup to opening day of the 111th Congress, Republicans are insisting that their voices still count.

“Half the American public is represented by a Republican senator, and all we’re suggesting here is that we be part of the process,” said Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell Sunday morning on ABC News “This Week with George Stephanopoulos.”

Republicans are urging a recovery plan that is anchored in tax cuts and expanded energy production, including exploration and drilling in previously protected offshore sites. An offshore drilling ban, in effect since 1982, lapsed at the end of the 110th Congress.

Citing Obama’s call for 3 million new jobs, 80 percent of which are to be in the private sector, McConnell said: “Do we really want to create 20 percent of the jobs in the public sector? That would be 600,000 new government jobs.”

House Republicans are calling for hearings and open amendments. Last fall, House GOP leader John Boehner released a plan calling for doubling the child tax credit and zeroing out the capital gains tax for two years to encourage more investment.

“Obviously with reports that they’re planning on spending $1 trillion, this needs to be a very open process. We need to have hearings in appropriate committees, and this bill needs to be free of special interest earmarks,” said Kevin Smith, a spokesman for Boehner.

Meanwhile, Speaker Pelosi announced a hearing on the economic recovery plan on Wednesday, to be conducted by the Steering and Policy Committee, an arm of the Democratic caucus.

The hearing, to be held in the committee room of the House Ways and Means Committee, is not expected to include Republicans.

“We know that smart, strategic investments in our nation’s infrastructure are key to getting Americans back to work and getting our economy moving forward,” said Rep. George Miller (D) of California, a cochair of the Steering and Policy Committee, in a statement last week.

Democrats on Capitol Hill want the plan to include spending on infrastructure as well as on tax relief for the middle class and aid to states.

Some had hoped to have a recovery plan in shape for Obama to sign on Inauguration Day, but that goal is now highly unlikely.

“I want to be sure we do this in a bipartisan manner. I want to make sure that all senators have some input here and do it as quickly as we can,” said Senate majority leader Harry Reid on NBC NewsMeet the Press” on Sunday, including “working nights and weekends to get this done.

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