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Returning From Recess, Senators Face A Stalemate

President Obama is greeted by Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid of Nevada during an event at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas on Friday.
Pablo Martinez Monsivais
President Obama is greeted by Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid of Nevada during an event at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas on Friday.

President Obama was out in Nevada on Friday trying to help Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid hang on to his seat in November. But the president could also use Reid's help: Much of the Obama agenda is now stalled at the doorstep of the Senate.

Lawmakers return Monday from a weeklong recess to a partisan impasse: Democrats want to rack up accomplishments before this fall's midterm elections, but Republicans expect big gains in those elections and have little incentive to let anything get done before then.

At a fundraiser for Reid at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, Obama lamented how at every turn, he and Reid faced what the president called "opposition and obstruction from a lot of leaders across the aisle." So Obama made a proposal tying together two issues Democrats and Republicans can agree on: creating jobs and clean energy.

"If an American company wants to create jobs and grow, we should be there to help them do it," he said. "So that's why I'm urging Congress to invest $5 billion more in these kinds of clean energy manufacturing tax credits -- more than doubling the amount that we made available last year."

Little Common Ground

The president mentioned that two Republican senators backed the measure. But efforts to get a larger energy bill moving in the Senate have gone nowhere, mainly because of GOP concerns that such a bill might include so-called cap-and-trade provisions aimed at limiting carbon emissions.

After a meeting on energy with the president last week, Tennessee Republican Lamar Alexander declared limits on carbon off the table.

"If we want to have a clean energy bill this year, we can do that, but the first step in that is to put cap-and-trade aside," he said. "Then we can talk about things that the president and Republicans agree on."

But there's not much the president and Republicans do agree on.

A few Republicans may vote to confirm Elena Kagan to the Supreme Court. A few may also end up voting for the final version of the financial regulatory overhaul that's already been passed by the House. But Republicans, citing concern over deficits, have repeatedly filibustered Democrats' efforts to extend long-term unemployment benefits that expired last month.

Reid's frustration was clear at the Las Vegas fundraiser: "The party of no is in the United States Senate, those Republicans. We have a couple of women that work with us, but that's about it, the two senators from Maine," he said. "And it's been a struggle. They're betting on our failure, we're betting on our success, and you know, it's a bet we're going to win."

Coming Debates

Reid's problem goes beyond Republicans. Nebraska Democrat Ben Nelson has been breaking ranks with his party repeatedly to help Republicans filibuster the unemployment benefits extension.

"I think at some point you have to say no to adding to the deficit because you only worsen the economy and you only threaten any kind of recovery by deficit spending," Nelson said.

Such concerns kept neither Nelson nor a dozen Republicans from voting in late May for $33 billion in funding for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan -- all of which would add to the deficit. The House passed that war funding last week, but because the House added $10 billion to keep teachers from being laid off, the bill once again needs the Senate's approval.

That will likely be contentious, as will the Senate's consideration of the annual defense authorization bill. Some Republicans are threatening to filibuster that measure because it contains a provision they strongly oppose -- a repeal of the "don't ask, don't tell" policy that prohibits openly gay people from serving in the military.

As for the president's recent call for Congress to pass an immigration overhaul this year, South Carolina Republican Lindsey Graham says forget it.

"If you bring comprehensive immigration to the floor in this environment, it will fail, it will fail miserably, and nobody will touch it for a decade," he said.

Graham prefers waiting until after the elections. He thinks Republicans might be more willing then to consider not only immigration, but a lot of other things piling up in the Senate.

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