Congress will return to face tough issues

The Kansas City StarJanuary 5, 2010 

A weary Congress returns to work this month wary of new battles over big-ticket issues, some of its members said.

The reason: The surprisingly bitter and unfinished debate over health care reform has sucked much of the political oxygen away from other concerns, such as energy, pollution, immigration reform and budget policy.

The potential result: lots of finger-pointing in 2010 — but little lawmaking.

"The discussion around health care has frozen the legislative process in Washington," said Rep. Emanuel Cleaver, a Missouri Democrat.

Rep. Dennis Moore, a retiring Kansas Democratic lawmaker, agreed.

"Health care has taken a lot of time, and I don't think we're going to be able to address a whole array of new issues," he said.

Some slowdown in the 2010 congressional calendar is normal. Politicians are often reluctant to take controversial positions in an election year, and the second year of any presidency tends to be less politically active than the first.

But the severe drop in public support for health care reform and the electorate's general anti-incumbent mood have apparently convinced many Democrats that one tough vote is more than enough.

"There is no energy left to go through controversial legislation that will endanger many Democrats," Cleaver said.

The first item on the not-to-do list may be the energy and pollution proposal known as cap and trade.

The Senate is working on its version of the House-passed bill, which seeks to curb carbon emissions through a complicated scheme of incentives and penalties for energy providers and consumers.

Supporters of cap and trade think they can get a bill in 2010, but they concede enthusiasm for the plan the GOP calls "cap and tax" is waning after the debate over a 10-year, $800 billion health care plan — and tough votes on rescuing banks and stimulating the economy.

"Health care was one of Obama's priorities, and we knew that going in, (but) we did not anticipate the long battle in both chambers," said Liz Forrestal, executive director of the Missouri chapter of the League of Conservation Voters, an environmental group. "We didn't expect cap and trade to get kicked down the road for as long as it was."

Some Republican members, though, said they expected another push for the energy bill, which President Barack Obama called a priority.

"I don't buy for a minute that cap and trade is dead," said Rep. Sam Graves, a Missouri Republican.

Graves also said he expected an attempt at immigration reform. In December, a coalition of House members, including Cleaver, proposed a reform package that could eventually legalize millions of undocumented immigrants now in the United States.

"We've waited a year," said Rep. Luis Gutierrez, an Illinois Democrat. "We've waited too long."

But House leaders are telling members they won’t ask for a politically tough vote on potential legalization for immigrants unless the Senate approves a bill first.

That's considered unlikely — as in the health care debate, it will take 60 votes to pass an immigration bill in the upper chamber.

If immigration and energy proposals struggle, Congress may turn its attention to other matters, some members said.

Sen. Claire McCaskill, a Missouri Democrat, said deficit reduction and financial industry reforms may get bipartisan support.

"I think we've got to look at the derivative market and how it almost brought down our financial system," McCaskill said. "There is an appetite for dealing with financial regulations."

The attempted bombing aboard a Christmas flight may refocus congressional attention on homeland security.

"Our first priority in Congress this year should be finding out what caused this critical intelligence failure (and) how to prevent failures in the future," said Sen. Kit Bond, a Missouri Republican.

Both parties are arguing over the status of the war against terror.

"There's no question that the president has downplayed the risk of terror since he took office," Sen. Jim DeMint, a South Carolina Republican, said Sunday in a joint appearance with McCaskill on CNN.

"That's just not true," McCaskill responded. "This president has focused like a laser on how to keep this country safe."

She also said it was "nuts" that DeMint wanted to delay confirmation of the new head of the Transportation Security Administration.

Progress on any of these issues will grow more difficult as the year passes. Republicans are expected to pick up seats in both chambers of Congress and may try to postpone decisions until after voters get their say in November.

Both parties do expect an effort at job creation, perhaps through tax credits for businesses that hire new workers, extending incentive programs, or both. The Senate is expected to take up a multibillion-dollar House jobs bill later this month or early in February.

A look at the legislative agenda

Likely to get done:

•Health care reform

Could be fading:

•Energy/cap and trade

•Immigration reform

Could get done:

•Budget

•Jobs

•Homeland security

•Financial services reform

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