Congress returns this week to an ambitious agenda that includes a Supreme Court confirmation, major financial regulation, potential immigration reform and other significant priorities. Some, like Elena Kagan's nomination, appear likely to pass. Others are less clear. ...
And the closer Democrats get to midterm election season, the more Congress will have to factor in how re-election races will impact their agenda. Democrats in close races may be less willing to take controversial votes as they turn to wooing independent and conservative voters for November.
All of which means this will be a very busy July.
In this session, Democrats in Congress will press on the following key items:
- Elena Kagan: Congress hopes to confirm U.S. Solicitor General Elena Kagan to the Supreme Court before the August recess. First, the Senate Judiciary Committee must vote to confirm, then her confirmation will be put to a full Senate vote. Some Republicans have expressed their opposition to Kagan's nomination, but Democrats are still expected to round up the 60 votes required to overcome a Republican filibuster and confirm her.
- Financial Reform: Though Democrats weren't able to pass financial reform legislation in the Senate before July 4th, they did get the good news that Democratic Sen. Maria Cantwell plans to support the legislation despite voting against an earlier version in May. Her vote switch gave new life to the bill in the wake of Byrd's death and consequent loss of Byrd's supporting vote. Republican Sen. Susan Collins also said that she is "inclined to support" the bill, further bolstering Democratic efforts. The bill would rein in the power of big banks, try to prevent a future financial collapse, and add oversight to many sectors of the financial industry.
- Unemployment Benefits: An estimated 2 million Americans reached the end of their unemployment benefits during the six weeks the Senate has been debating the issue. The longer the debate continues, the more unemployed Americans join that group. Passing the proposed six month extension is a challenge without Byrd in the Senate, but his temporary successor would provide the key 60th vote.
- Immigration Reform: Immigration has jumped into the forefront of congressional debate as Arizona's controversial state immigration law makes waves across the country. President Obama identified immigration reform as one of his top priorities in the months ahead, yet its prospects in Congress seem dim. The controversial nature of the issues makes it a difficult topic for members involved in difficult re-election races. The Department of Justice has pressed forward with legal opposition to Arizona's law, but the legislation for now remains stalled in Congress.
- Energy Reform: Democrats can likely pass a bill that creates new incentives for alternative energy and limits offshore oil drilling. The question is whether or not they can also use the energy bill to target climate change. Senate Republicans fiercely oppose President Obama's proposed cap on carbon emissions, as do some key centrist lawmakers (especially the ones protecting the coal industry in their districts).
- War Funding: Just before the July 4th recess, the president threatened to veto the latest version of a spending bill which will, in part, fund the president's troop surge in Afghanistan. The president took issue with cuts for education funding included in the bill passed by the House July 1. The legislation now heads to the Senate, where the president hopes allies will restore the funding.
How much of this can be stalled, slow-walked, talked to death and killed depends on the success of the GOP keeping Ben Nebraska Nelson on their side and how quickly WVA Gov. Joe Manchin fills Robert Byrd's empty seat.
In other words, the chances of little progress happening are good.
Update: Nelson says he'll go along, and Manchin will appoint a replacement by the end of the coming weekend. Now that's progress.