After recess, Congress has its hands full

As Congress returns today after a month-long recess, lawmakers face a pileup of pressing legislation, from immigration to energy, that has been eclipsed by the all-consuming battle over health care.

Many pending issues, such as climate change and new Wall Street regulations, are priorities for President Obama but have nonetheless had to compete for attention as the administration and lawmakers work to pass health care by the end of the year. Health care will continue to dominate the agenda at least through the fall as Obama takes a more active role in prodding his plan along — beginning with an address to Congress on Wednesday.

VIDEO: The president addresses education and tackles health care reform. Play

"When we bite off more than we can chew, we don't succeed," Sen. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., said in an interview. "Most people who have watched Washington know it can only do one big thing at a time."

Advocates of other issues say Congress cannot neglect those matters. Travis Plunkett of the Consumer Federation of America said passing banking regulations to prevent another economic meltdown should top the to-do list for lawmakers. Plunkett said the rules should be approved soon to avoid the politics of next year's midterm elections.

"The further we get from the collapse of last fall, the less pressure Congress seems to feel," he said.

Although the House has made progress on the issue, movement has been slower in the Senate. Senate Banking Committee Chairman Chris Dodd, D-Conn., a key player on regulation, was thrust into the health care debate this year after the health committee chairman, Sen. Edward Kennedy, D-Mass., was diagnosed with brain cancer. Before Kennedy's death last month, Dodd was the second-ranking Democrat on the health committee.

Pam Banks, policy counsel for the Consumers Union, said that there are encouraging signs Congress will act this year but that sometimes-heated town-hall-style meetings "sucked the air out of the room" last month.

Climate-change legislation, meanwhile, has twice been delayed in the Senate after narrowly passing the House in June. Although a draft of the Senate bill was expected in July, Sen. Barbara Boxer, D-Calif., says it won't be ready until "later in September," partly because of the health care debate.

Senate Finance Chairman Max Baucus, D-Mont., whose committee will play an important role in drafting the climate bill, has been leading a group of senators privately negotiating for a bipartisan solution on health care. That process is supposed to result in a bill by Sept. 15, but the group has missed deadlines in the past.

"I am not hopeful that we're going to get something this year," Tyson Slocum, director of the energy program at Public Citizen, said of the climate bill. "Congress has a history of not being able to push sweeping reforms unless there is some sort of pressure point." Slocum and Plunkett both said the slowdown has less to do with health care than with the complexity of the other bills — which would have taken time under normal circumstances. In many cases, they said, committees and staff members insulated from the health care debate are still working on the bills.

"I don't think that the health care debate has been the boogeyman," Slocum said. "I do think Obama has been guilty of delegating too much to Congress."

Obama and legislative leaders say they have had to prioritize complicated policies this year so, as Obama put it, they "don't all just crash at the same time." As the health care debate drags on, it will continue to eat up time for those other priorities. Other legislation getting squeezed this year includes:

• Immigration, which re-emerged as a top issue during the 2008 election, will have to wait until next year, Obama has said. "Politically and legislatively," he said during a speech last month in Mexico, "the matter stands behind health care."

• Spending bills, which are supposed to be done by Sept. 30, are lagging. The Senate has finished four of 12, and Sen. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, told The Hill newspaper that more time will be needed. That will force Congress to pass a stopgap budget to keep the government running.

• Unless Congress acts this year, the estate tax, paid by people who inherit property and money, will expire in 2010 and then return in 2011 at higher rates. The tax falls under the purview of the Senate Finance Committee, which is engaged in health care legislation.

"There are always priorities you tackle and some that you don't," said Sen. Sherrod Brown, D-Ohio, who said health care and the economy will take precedence over everything else. "This is so important that everything else pales in relation."