Congress returns from holiday facing long agenda, little time

WASHINGTON–Congress faces a pile-up of contentious issues as lawmakers return from a week-long 4th of July recess today. And Connecticut lawmakers are set to play leading roles in high-stakes votes over everything from Wall Street reform and climate change to emergency health care funding for states and assistance to the unemployed.

The state’s delegation also has a bevy of pet and parochial issues they are hoping to push through this month. But whether they can navigate through the gridlock and produce concrete results as lawmakers hurtle toward the November elections is an open question.

“The political polarization is so extreme, it’s going to be hard to move anything,” said Darrell West, a political scholar at the Brookings Institute, a Washington think tank.

July is the “last window” for meaningful congressional action, he said, before the looming elections make the heated partisan atmosphere boil over. But already, he added, “even simple things are now complicated.”

Take, for example, the fate of a measure to renew expired unemployment benefits for an estimated 2 million laid-off workers who have had their checks cut off because of the stalemate in Washington. Although the House passed an unemployment extension bill before lawmakers left town on July 1, the Senate failed-on its fourth try-to do the same.

There’s also a massive spending bill to fund the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. House leaders took the Senate version of that bill and tucked in an extra $10 billion for an education jobs package, funding that Connecticut officials are relying on to avoid significant teacher lay-offs across the state.

Both those items could come up for a Senate vote this week. Democrats hope that a replacement for the late-Sen. Robert Byrd, D-West Va., will be in place soon, giving them the final vote they need to secure passage of the unemployment extension, although West Virginia’s governor has yet to select Byrd’s successor. The fate of the education funds is more precarious because of resistance from Republicans and some Democrats to new spending measures.

Nearly every member of Connecticut’s delegation put the unemployment measure and school funding at the top of their priority lists for the coming weeks.

“This is food-on-the-table and 40-kids-in-a-classroom type stuff,” said Rep. Jim Himes, D-4th District, who griped that more than 200 bills passed by the House are now in limbo in the Senate, where Democrats are one vote short of a filibuster-proof majority and also have had difficulty keeping their own members in line.

For Sen. Christopher Dodd, D-Conn., the primary focus, at least this week, will be getting the sweeping financial services overhaul bill, which he helped craft, to President Obama’s desk. After a roller-coaster series of negotiations, Dodd is still working to secure enough yes votes for the bill to clear the Senate, with a vote possible this week.

Dodd’s office said he will also press for passage of emergency Medicaid funds to the states. Connecticut’s state legislature assumed it would get those funds, and if it doesn’t, there will be a $266 million hole in the state budget.

“Senator Dodd is focused on seeing his Wall Street reform legislation become law, and working with his colleagues to provide relief for our states and out-of-work Americans by passing a critical extension of federal Medicaid funding and unemployment insurance,” said Allison Preiss, Dodd’s spokeswoman.

Sen. Joseph Lieberman, a Democrat elected as an independent, will be occupied with getting some version of his climate change legislation, which he is co-sponsoring with Sen. John Kerry, D-Mass., through the Senate. Marshall Wittmann, his communications director, said Lieberman’s staff has spent the break working on a possible compromise bill that would include some limit on carbon emissions, although the scope is still unclear.

Debate over a climate bill could absorb up to two weeks of the Senate’s limited calendar. Lieberman could also be front and center if the Senate takes up the defense authorization bill, which includes his measure to repeal the so-called “don’t ask, don’t tell” ban on gays serving openly in the military.

In the House, Democratic Reps. John Larson, of the 1st District, and Chris Murphy, of the 5th District, both hope to secure full House votes on key bills they have sponsored.

Larson is pushing to get a vote in the coming weeks on a campaign finance measure that would allow congressional candidates to access public funding if they agree to forgo political action committees (PACs) donations and raise a minimum level of small individual contributions.

Murphy is pushing a measure to strengthen federal “Buy American” provisions, which requires government agencies to give a certain percentage of contracts to domestic companies. He is hoping his measure will be included in a series of manufacturing bills that the House leadership plans to vote on in July.

Connecticut’s other House members say they will spend these next few weeks focusing on bread-and butter issues important to their districts.

Himes, for example, said he will be pushing to get key transportation projects in his district funded, including $5 million for the Atlantic Street rail underpass in Stamford and $2 million to complete reconstruction of the Congress Street Bridge in Bridgeport.

Rep. Joe Courtney, D-2nd, said he will be tracking the fate of two spending provisions, both of which could help the Electric Boat facility in Groton. The first provision would earmark $5.4 billion in the 2011 defense appropriations bill to build two Virginia-class submarines, one more than had been originally planned, and to prepare to build more in 2012 and 2013 . The second measure would set aside $672 million in the defense bill for research and development of a replacement for the Ohio-class submarine, which carries nuclear weapons.

Courtney said submarine funding could help stabilize and even increase the workforce at Electric Boat.

Rep. Rosa DeLauro, D-3rd District, as chairwoman of the agriculture spending subcommittee, will be steering a $23 billion measure through the House. That bill provides money for everything from the federal Department of Agriculture and the Food and Drug Administration to the federal food stamp and school lunch programs. The bill also includes several Connecticut-related earmarks, including $500,000 for a University of Connecticut program studying ways to combat viruses and microbes and $401,000 for the Food Marketing Policy Center, also at the University of Connecticut.

Francis Creighton, chief of staff to Murphy, said his boss will be more focused on trimming spending in these bills than promoting it. Murphy has called for a one percent cut in the overall budget and Creighton said that will be the “deciding focus” for Murphy when the spending bills come up for House votes.

Himes, too, has said that even as he looks to get money for Connecticut-specific projects, he will be looking for a broader pull-back in federal spending.

But it’s not clear how much of a chance those two lawmakers will get to demonstrate financial austerity before the elections. Although many of these bills may be approved at the committee level, it’s unclear whether the full House will take them up before lawmakers leave Washington again for the August recess.

Many political observers say that Congress will likely only pass a couple of the most high-profile spending bills, such as those to fund homeland security and defense, and leave others for a possible lame-duck session after the election.

“We will be running around spinning our wheels doing these things, but it won’t lead to fruition until a lame-duck session,” predicted Creighton.