They’re ba-aa-ack! The Senate returns Monday from its summer recess with – what else? – a lot of work and little time to do it, not when lawmakers are only planning to stay in Washington for another month before heading home again for the final weeks leading up to the November mid-term elections.
Here’s the to-do list: the $30 billion small business bill that’s been stalled since June, the debate over the Bush tax cuts, that small matter of funding the government, the food safety bill that’s been languishing in the Senate for a whopping 15 months – a lag that caused a stir during the recent egg recall, FAA authorization, DOD authorization that includes the Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell repeal, and the tax extenders package. Of course, it’s a safe bet that senators won’t get all that done in the next four weeks, but a few issues will likely come up: extending government funding through the end of the year, debating the Bush tax cuts, and resolving the small business bill.
On the latter, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid this week is set to take another shot at passing the small business measure that has been held up by a Republican filibuster since June, with Democrats hoping to complete work on it by week’s end. Thanks to the newfound support of Republican George Voinovich of Ohio – who, it warrants mentioning, is retiring this fall – Democrats now appear to have the 60 votes needed to end the GOP blockade, after they came up only one vote short the last time they voted on the bill on July 29. Voinovich on Thursday told the Washington Post that most GOP amendments “didn’t have anything to do with the bill” and, citing the country’s current economic doldrums, “we don’t have time for messaging.”
The bill would establish a $30 billion small business lending facility run by the Treasury Department and provide another $12 billion in tax relief. Smaller banks – with under $10 billion in assets – would use the Treasury fund to extend loans to small businesses, helping get these companies back on their feet and hiring new workers. The fund, proponents say, could help leverage up to $300 billion in loans, a massive boost in loosening tight credit markets. But Republicans have argued that the fund is a “mini-TARP,” tying it to the unpopular Wall Street bailout. Earlier this month, the top Senate Republican, Mitch McConnell of Kentucky even derided the measure as “a little itty-bitty small business bill that no one thinks will have much of an impact on the economy.” But – buoyed by Voinovich’s support – President Obama said Friday, “I hope we can now move forward to get small businesses the relief they need to start hiring and growing again.” If the bill passes the Senate, then it will have to be merged with the House version, which also contains the $30 billion lending facility but differs from the Senate version in ways that could make that reconciliation process more difficult.
Ultimately, the summer-long stalemate over the small business bill is an indication of how difficult it could be for the White House to pass any of the trio of economic measures proposed earlier this week by President Obama. With Congress bogged down in partisan gridlock and ever more focused on the November elections, there’s more than a healthy dose of skepticism on Capitol Hill that any of these measures will pass before the mid-terms. In fact, one Democratic senator – Michael Bennet of Colorado – has already come out against the President’s $50 billion infrastructure plan. “I will not support additional spending in a second stimulus package,” said Bennet, embroiled in a tough re-election battle, earlier this week.
Looming over all of this on the Hill, of course, is the impending debate over the Bush tax cuts. Democrats want to extend the tax cuts for individuals earning under $200,000 a year and couples earning under $250,000 a year, but Republicans – and a handful of Democrats – want to extend them for everyone, warning that any tax hikes – even just for the wealthiest two percent of Americans – could harm small businesses and derail the nation’s already-sluggish economic recovery. Thus far four Democrats – Sens. Blanche Lincoln, Kent Conrad, Evan Bayh, and Ben Nelson – have announced their opposition to the President’s plan. And on Thursday, Democrat Jack Reed told reporters that “the ability do anything major [before the midterms] is going to be very limited.”
Throw in the remaining handful of issues like DOD authorization and the food safety bill and – with lawmakers planning to bolt the Beltway again come the second week in October – that’s a hefty workload for this fall, especially when it’s a season for campaigning, not for passing major legislation.