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Congress Returns to Health Care, And Tight Deadline

Legislators get back to business on Capitol Hill this week after a tumultuous summer break, and all eyes will be on President Obama Wednesday night, when he addresses a joint session of Congress.

U.S. Sen. John McCain (R-AZ) and Sen. Mitch McConnell (R-KY) participate in a health care forum at Palmetto General Hospital on September 1, 2009 in Hialeah, Florida.

Above: U.S. Sen. John McCain (R-AZ) and Sen. Mitch McConnell (R-KY) participate in a health care forum at Palmetto General Hospital on September 1, 2009 in Hialeah, Florida.

He is expected to provide significant detail about what he wants out of his health care overhaul, refocusing a battle that will dominate congressional negotiations and debate well into the fall.

But returning legislators also face an array of other pressing issues, including budget appropriations and climate change; a financial regulation overhaul; and funding for the war in Afghanistan and for the president's plan to close the military prison at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.

"The game is health reform," says Thomas Mann, a senior fellow in governance studies at the liberal Brookings Institution. "But in reality, there's a lot else cooking."

But with the House tentatively scheduled to recess for the year at the end of October, it remains an open question what Democratic congressional leaders can — or want to — squeeze into their short schedule.

Ambitious Agenda Meets Reality

Once, not so long ago, the White House dreamed of a health care deal before the August recess.

And even some Democratic leaders waxed hopeful about what other initiatives could be taken up before Congress finishes out the year.

"I laugh when I think back to three or four weeks ago, when [Senate Majority Leader] Harry Reid said that they're going to start on immigration this year," says Stuart Rothenberg, editor and publisher of the Rothenberg Political Report.

Rothenberg said his immediate thought was: "Are you kidding?"

The realities of scheduling, coupled with the Democrats' struggle to construct health care overhaul legislation that would attract even enough of their own members to ensure passage, have already as much as sidelined Senate action on a high-profile climate change bill.

And that's as it should be, say GOP leaders.

During a meeting last week with reporters, Sen. Lamar Alexander, a Tennessee Republican and chairman of the GOP conference, said that Democrats need to pick one big initiative to deal with this fall: health care, climate change or financial services regulation.

His comments came a day after Democratic Sens. Barbara Boxer of California and John Kerry of Massachusetts reported a delay in finishing the Senate climate bill they're writing. They said that the death of Massachusetts Sen. Edward Kennedy and Kerry's own August hip surgery made their promised early-September delivery impossible.

That has depleted the chances that a compromise bill could be negotiated with the House before the end of the year. The House passed its so-called cap-and-trade bill in June.

Other legislation already passed this year in the House and awaiting companion action in the Senate includes bills on clean water, corporate bonus taxes and expanded food safety. Congress also has to contemplate defense, intelligence and State Department reauthorization bills, as well as the massive, every-six-years surface-transportation spending plan, which expires at the end of September.

Must-Do Items And Dead-Enders

Other initiatives expected to be subsumed by health care and the calendar include financial regulation overhaul proposed earlier this year by the president, and legislation that would provide Obama the funds needed to fulfill his pledge to close the Guantanamo detention facility by Jan. 22.

"They are going to have to postpone that," Mann says of Guantanamo Bay, "and that will, as have other things, irritate liberals in Congress."

In May, the Senate voted to strip a supplemental war funding bill of money intended for the closing of the prison camp — a defeat for Obama. The president's proposal to incarcerate some of the prisoners on American soil proved unpalatable even to Reid.

"We don't want them around the United States," Reid said.

Action on proposed financial regulation changes is also likely to be delayed, especially if Sen. Christopher Dodd, a Connecticut Democrat, moves from chairman of the Senate Banking Committee to fill Kennedy's former seat on the Senate Committee on Health and Human Services. Democratic Sen. Tim Johnson of South Dakota is in line to replace Dodd as chairman on the banking panel.

Budget Deadline Looms

Legislators also face a slew of appropriations bills — and a fiscal year that ends Sept. 30.

"Obviously, they have to keep government open, right?" Rothenberg says.

The Senate so far has passed four appropriation bills, the House all of theirs — but none are in committee.

Staffers on Capitol Hill expect that with Congress so behind on appropriations action, it will pass a continuing resolution this month that will keep government funding at current or reduced rates going into the new fiscal year — and perhaps even into 2010.

Meanwhile, The Base Grows Restless

So while health care will remain the big deal of the fall — a referendum on Obama's ability to pass a big policy initiative, and on the Democratic leadership's ability to corral its members — there could be other surprises.

The war in Afghanistan is becoming a larger problem for the White House, with support sagging and the liberal base restive. It remains to be seen, however, whether anything will come to the floor on the issue.

Sen. Russ Feingold, a liberal Democrat from Wisconsin, has criticized Obama's strategy and called for a timetable for withdrawal.

"Feingold is probably unlikely to succeed in getting his bill to the floor of the Senate," Mann said, "but he could be difficult and add it to something else to get it rolling."

In the House, Mann says, it is "not out of the realm of possibility" that Speaker Nancy Pelosi could offer a vote on the war to keep the party's liberal wing happy.

"Health reform will define this session of Congress, and the president's start," Mann says. "But you've got to remember that Congress is a large, decentralized body."

And with a restive liberal base, and a health care overhaul that, despite Pelosi's insistence to the contrary, could be trimmed of elements most popular with that base (like a public insurance option), many legislators may be looking for other opportunities to make their mark before the 2010 midterm elections arrive.

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