Congress returns to immense agenda

Lawmakers face issues ranging from a huge deficit and bank regulations to healthcare reform and climate change.

Alex Brandon/AP
Break's over: Lawmakers return to Capitol Hill this week, faced with a vast agenda.

Not since the Depresssion-era Congress of 1933 has Capitol Hill’s agenda been as vast as the one that faces Congress now.

With a $787 billion stimulus bill in the record books, lawmakers return to Washington this week to resolve differences on a $3.6 trillion budget proposal for the next fiscal year – a third of which is to be paid for with borrowed money.

But, at the urging of President Obama, lawmakers are also taking up historic overhauls of America’s energy and healthcare systems on an accelerated pace. Mr. Obama has said that without these reforms, sustained economic recovery will not be possible.

“It’s a bold request from Obama to the Congress, but it’s also divisive and politically dangerous,” says Julian Zelizer, a congressional historian at Princeton University. “Democrats are not as united as the Republicans and that’s the big threat for Obama.”

On Friday, the Obama administration turned up the heat on Congress to move forward on climate change legislation. The finding by the Environment Protection Agency that carbon dioxide and five other greenhouse gases pose a danger to public health opens the door to more regulation under the Clean Air Act – a move that threatens to preempt congressional action.

In the next few weeks, lawmakers will also take up issues ranging from consumer protections for credit card users to a new framework for regulating banks and other financial entities, such as insurance giant AIG, that contributed to the current global financial crisis.

Then, there’s the politics of federal bailouts – which are highly unpopular with voters. Pending the results of government-administered “stress tests” of banks, Congress may have to weigh in on whether to approve more funding for banks to boost lending.

Lawmakers also face decisions over whether to engineer their own rescue of the auto industry ¬¬– or cope with the consequences of bankruptcy filings – if General Motors and Chrysler fail to meet the Obama administration’s expectations for makeovers.

Congress is also expected to vote on the president's $83.4 billion defense supplemental request for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. While the request is expected to pass, it takes a toll on the antiwar faction of the Democratic caucus that campaigned in the 2008 elections to wind down the war.

To date, Republicans have held a strict partisan line, almost, against key administration proposals. Only three Republican senators supported the president’s $787 billion economic recovery plan, and Fiscal Year 2010 budget resolutions passed the House and Senate without a single Republican vote.

That makes efforts to find common ground among Democrats all the more imperative on how to pay for expanding access to healthcare or how to deal with regional fallout of a cap-and-trade system for carbon emissions.

“The key to dealing with our deficit and debt is to get a handle on out-of-control healthcare costs – not to stand idly by as the economy goes into free fall,” the president said in a speech at Georgetown University last week.

On global warming, he said: “Some have argued that we shouldn’t attempt such a transition until the economy recovers, and they are right that we have to take the costs of transition into account. But we can no longer delay putting a framework for a clean energy economy in place.”

Senate and House committees are already developing legislation on both healthcare and climate change, with markups and floor votes expected by Memorial Day or July 4 recess.

Obama reached out to Republicans Monday with a call for Cabinet secretaries to find millions in savings to curb deficits. Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell endorsed the move, but with a rebuff.

“I appreciate the efforts to save millions by identifying unnecessary or duplicative government spending. But let’s not forget that at the same time they’re looking for millions in savings, the president’s budget calls for adding trillions to the debt,” he said in a statement. “The nation’s debt is at its highest level ever, but under the administration’s budget, the amount of public debt will double in five years and triple in 10.”

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