A long agenda facing Congress after Labor Day break

WASHINGTON–Congress’s legislative to-do list for the next few weeks is long and loaded with possible controversy. From allowing gays to serve in the military to the looming expiration of the Bush-era tax cuts, the opportunities for big, defining ideological brawls are rife.

But lawmakers may also sidestep much of that agenda, scale back to a few must-do items, and head back to the campaign trail as quickly and quietly as they can. Whether they will choose Plan A or Plan B depends on who you ask.

“We’ve got about three weeks in which we need to do a lot of work,” said Rep. Rosa DeLauro, D-3rd District. “It’s going to be very busy and intense.”

“Their objective is to get out of town,” posited John J. Pitney, a government professor at Claremont McKenna College, who said that lawmakers would likely accomplish “very little” before the November elections.

One thing everyone agrees on: Congress is unlikely to finalize the pending spending bills for the 2011 fiscal year, so they will have to pass a short-term extension to keep the government running after Sept. 30, when the current appropriations bills expire.

One thing everyone differs on: whether Congress can and should pass legislation to extend the tax cuts enacted under former President George W. Bush. Before the August break, Democratic leaders had hoped to make this a defining pre-election debate, pressing legislation to renew the tax breaks for lower and middle-income Americans but letting the top-tier cuts expire. Republicans say all the cuts should be extended.

Over the August break, the Democrats’ appetite for this proposal seems to have waned, with many of the party’s vulnerable incumbents signaling that they would not vote for a tax increase, even on the wealthy, in this difficult economic climate.  If the tax cut debate ends up being more of a fight among Democrats, rather than with the Republicans, Congressional leaders may not be able to push the proposal through.

Similarly, the prospect for other pending big-ticket items has faded, such as an energy bill, and the outlook for new proposals, such as President Barack Obama’s $50 billion transportation infrastructure initiative or his call for a set of business tax breaks, is also uncertain.

Even if some of the major bills don’t get traction in the coming weeks, Connecticut lawmakers say they have a full agenda and are eager to get back into the thick of legislating.

DeLauro said she would push for a House vote on her proposal to allow business to create “manufacturing reinvestment accounts.” Similar to an individual retirement account (IRA), these investments could be used to pay for job training, new equipment or other business development that could spur the economy.

The 3rd District Democrat said her bill is likely to come up as part of the House Democrats’ “Make It in America” agenda, a series of about 15 or so measures aimed at reviving U.S. manufacturing. The package also includes two bills sponsored by Rep. Chris Murphy, D-5th District, who said that his main focus in the coming weeks would be to shepherd those to House passage.

DeLauro said she also plans to press for passage of a child nutrition bill, a proposal to ensure gender equity in pay, and defense appropriations provisions that are vital for Connecticut.

Defense legislation and the child nutrition bill are also on Rep. Joe Courtney’s priority list. Courtney, D-2nd District, worked to include provisions in the nutrition bill that could benefit Connecticut’s dairy interests. One measure, for example, seeks to increase the use of low-fat cheese in school meals and another would provide reimbursements to schools for a special milk program.

Rep. John Larson, D-1st District, will be involved in devising the Democrats’ strategy on the tax cuts and other top agenda items. But Chris Barnes, a Larson spokesman, said his parochial focus will be on legislation designating the Coltsville Historic District, a 260-acre site in Hartford that includes Colt Park, as a National Park. That bill won committee approval at the end of July, and Larson hopes to get it through the full House in the coming weeks.

Rep. Jim Himes, D-4th District, will be focused on local issues, like securing funding for a flood mitigation project in Greenwich, as well as broader proposals to pump up the economy, said his spokesman, Jason Cole.

Sen. Joseph Lieberman, an independent, could end up in the midst of a heated fight over gay rights if the Senate takes up the defense authorization bill. That currently includes Lieberman’s measure to repeal the military’s “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy, which bars openly gay individuals from serving in the military,

Some Republicans have threatened to filibuster the proposal, but a spokesman for Lieberman, Marshall Wittmann, said there was increasing momentum behind the legislation. And a federal court decision last week striking down the policy gives “more urgency to the issue,” Wittmann said.

Sen. Chris Dodd, D-Conn., joked that from the look of his jammed-September schedule, his staff must have forgotten that he’s retiring. As chairman of the Senate Banking, Housing and Urban Affairs Committee, Dodd will be holding a hearing on the nation’s infrastructure needs, as well as a series of sessions on implementation of the recently-passed Wall Street reform bill he helped write. He also plans a series of public speeches on the new law.

“If you don’t get up and talk about it, someone else will,” Dodd said, in explaining why he planned a public relations blitz to promote the new law.  “There are a lot of people who have been highly critical of it, but it’s a great bill.”

Dodd said he’ll also be pushing the paycheck fairness bill in the Senate and hopes to move a measure creating a National Council on Children, modeled after a similar body in Connecticut.

Many of these may stall or fizzle, of course.  One key obstacle to major, and even minor, accomplishments is the calendar. Congress is scheduled to adjourn on Oct. 8. And with a volatile election around the corner, lawmakers are unlikely to let that deadline lapse.