Can an overloaded Congress get to immigration reform?

Congress has a full plate before November's midterms. Financial reform is likely to pass. But energy reform and immigration reform look like long shots. Here's what is on the docket.

Pablo Martinez Monsivais/AP
President Barack Obama is greeted by Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid of Nev., before delivering remarks on the economy during an event at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas in Las Vegas, Friday.

Republican Sen. Scott Brown’s announcement Monday that he will vote for financial reform brings Democrats within a vote of passing financial reform regulation – a key pledge of the Obama administration and the Democratic majority.

It’s a rare bright spot in an otherwise tough agenda as Congress returns for what is typically the last chance to move major legislation before a long August break and fall campaigns for midterm elections.

In the push for floor time this month, there’s a rift between what must be done, such as completing annual spending bills; what plausibly can be done, such as extending unemployment insurance and popular tax breaks; and what Democrats feel they must make at least a credible effort at doing to ensure that their base turns out in November, such as immigration and energy reform.

In a floor speech laying out the month's agenda, Senate majority leader Harry Reid (D) of Nevada pledged Monday to move quickly on a small business jobs bill to increase access to credit, extension of emergency unemployment insurance, and Wall Street reform. The bill easily cleared a procedural hurdle on June 29, 66 to 33.

Unemployment benefits

But Democrats are having more difficultly rounding up 60 votes for extending unemployment benefits, which fell one vote short on June 30. “We've tried for months to help people," said Senator Reid. "Nearly every Democrat has said, 'Yes,' and nearly every Republican has said, 'No.' That opposition is stopping recovery in its tracks.”

But with recent polls putting Republicans within range of taking back the House and picking up four to six seats in the Senate, GOP lawmakers have little incentive to help add to the accomplishments of the majority.

"While the Democrats have had many strategies since President Obama was elected, Republicans have been steadfast in opposition, and there’s no reason to change at this point,” says Julian Zelizer, a congressional historian at Princeton University in Princeton, N.J.

Financial reform

GOP votes are so rare in this session that Democrats are willing to go to great lengths to secure them. House and Senate negotiators had completed work on financial reform legislation, but reopened their conference last month after Senator Brown of Massachusetts expressed reservations about the compromise bill’s $19 billion funding mechanism, which he said would hurt banks in his state. So, they changed it, but until Monday Brown was still noncommittal.

“I appreciate the efforts to improve the bill, especially the removal of the $19 billion bank tax. As a result, it is a better bill than it was when this whole process started. While it isn't perfect, I expect to support the bill when it comes up for a vote,” Brown said in a statement released Monday.

Sen. Susan Collins (R) of Maine is also committed to supporting the finance reform bill. An interim appointment to replace Sen. Robert Byrd (D) of West Virginia, expected as early as this week, could give Democrats their 60th vote for Wall Street reform.

Energy reform

Meanwhile, Reid is drafting a scaled-down energy reform bill expected to expand incentives for green energy and propose reforms related to the Gulf oil spill. Democrats are also sounding out whether there is support for curbing carbon emissions for the nation’s power plants – a move Senate Republican leaders dub an energy tax and pledge to oppose.

Typically, support for energy bills plays out on regional lines, but in the shadow of midterm elections, partisan divisions are taking hold here, too.

GOP leaders say they could support energy legislation that focuses on incentives for cleaner energy and does not include carbon emission caps. Sen. Lindsey Graham (R) of South Carolina, who had broken ranks with GOP leaders to work with Democrats on cap-and-trade legislation, pulled out of negotiations in May, citing the oil spill and the Obama administration’s new resolve to take up the “cynical politics of comprehensive immigration reform.”

Immigration reform

Immigration reform again looms over the congressional agenda, as a backlash builds over the Justice Department’s decision to sue Arizona over its new immigration law. Democratic governors conveyed their concerns over the lawsuit at a meeting of the National Governor’s Association in Boston last weekend.

The lawsuit and promises to take up comprehensive immigration reform are gestures to Hispanic voters and Democratic Party activists disappointed that Democrats let the issue pass at a time when they held the White House and majorities in both the House and Senate – a chance that may not come again.

Supreme Court nominee Elena Kagan

On the other hand, solicitor general Elena Kagan appears to have a clear track for confirmation to the Supreme Court. The powerful National Rifle Association is stepping up an 11th hour campaign against the nominee, citing the prospect that she will rule against Second Amendment Rights. But so far, opposition to the nomination has not gained momentum.

“She’s in excellent shape. The only question is how many Republican votes she can draw,” says Carl Tobias, a professor at the University of Richmond School of Law.

What is not a priority is completion of the constitutionally mandated annual spending bills for FY 2011, now likely to be put off until a lame duck session after the Nov. 2 elections.


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