Congress Eyes 'Jobs' Bills Ahead of Election

With the payroll tax cut extended through the end of the year, unemployment insurance reformed, and the Medicare doc fix achieved, many of the president's top  legislative priorities have been accomplished more than nine months before the national elections this fall.

It's an unusual state of affairs for a Cardiac Congress that has been notorious for its brinksmanship - often waiting until the last moment to pass legislation critical to the economy whether it was a continuing resolution or the debt limit increase.

So what's next?

While the House of Representatives' agenda is not yet finalized through the end of the year, Republicans intend to forge ahead with their ' Plan for American Job Creators' - searching for ways to spur economic growth while also criticizing the president's failed economic policies.

Once the House returns to session next Monday, Republicans will continue consideration of the American Energy and Infrastructure Act, which House Speaker John Boehner broke up into three separate pieces for action on the House floor. Last week, just before leaving town, the House approved one-third of the package - H.R. 3408 - Protecting Investment in Oil Shale the Next Generation of Environmental, Energy, and Resource Security Act, also known as the PIONEERS Act.

Among the other big ticket items coming up for consideration, Majority Leader Eric Cantor says Republicans will pass a bill in early March that aims at helping entrepreneurs launch businesses, known as the Jumpstart Our Business Startups (JOBS) Act. He also says the House will enact a 20 percent small business tax cut this spring before Tax Day.

"We have to afford access to more financing for small businesses and address the regulatory burden that small businesses are facing so we can see them start up again," Cantor, R-Va., said on Fox News Sunday last weekend. "Small business is the job growth engine in this country. This package represents the first opportunity for us post the payroll tax holiday extension to work together in a bipartisan manner and get something done."

But these efforts are likely to face resistance, or could be completely ignored, by the Democratic-controlled Senate, adding more legislation to the slate of House-passed jobs bills that have yet to be considered in the upper chamber. That number now stands around 30, but an aide close to Cantor said it is "possible" it could grow as high as 50 bills by the time they're through.

In the coming weeks and months, House Republicans also continue to work towards a legislative remedy to block any potential government mandates that compel health insurance providers to cover contraception. Once the Supreme Court rules on the constitutionality of the Affordable Care Act, which is anticipated by early July, Republicans are expected to react legislatively depending on the ruling. The House is also expected to tweak the composition of the sequestration cuts due at the end of the year, move ahead on a Cybersecurity bill to protect the government's networks from cyber espionage (the Senate has already passed a bill), and Congress is expected to bridge its differences on the STOCK Act.

Another event that's likely to generate headlines won't come until late March or early April, when House Budget chairman Paul Ryan is expected to introduce the House GOP's FY2013 budget blueprint. Democrats and Republicans will joust publicly over the proposals, but the budget's impact will likely be more political than legislative as it stands little chance of passing through both chambers of Congress.

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid has already indicated that he does not intend to vote on a Senate budget this year. Instead, he says the Senate will continue operating off spending levels established in the Budget Control Act.

Agreeing on the most effective way to stimulate economic growth has been at the crux of the debate throughout this bitterly divided Congress. Spending cuts versus stimulus spending; Tax cuts against new tax revenues; Offsets and payfors or deficit spending and more debt.  Lately, Congress cannot agree on what even constitutes a jobs bill, with Democrats counting the days Republicans have held the House majority "without passing a single jobs bill," as Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi often says.

The White House has unveiled its own ideas for overhauling the tax code, and Boehner is also an advocate for comprehensive tax reform, even attempting to compromise with the president on a so-called Grand Bargain, which ultimately fell apart.

Now, after a prolonged, bruising battle over the payroll tax holiday, the speaker says he's unsure whether Congress has the gumption to pass tax reform before the election, which is just 257 days away.

"I think if we're serious about making America more competitive, improving our economy, and our ability to compete around the world, that we need fundamental change for our tax code - both on the corporate side and on the personal side," Boehner, R-Ohio, said last Thursday. "A lot of effort's been put into it. I think that we're going to continue to put effort into it. Whether we can get to the point of actually having a bill, I think that question is still open."

Even the speaker's rank and file members are treading cautiously, mindful of the sour public opinion of Congress, but eager to make progress on behalf of their constituents.

"There is only so much oxygen here as we enter the presidential campaign and we're all involved in our own races," Freshman Rep. Steve Southerland, R-Fla., told ABC News of the prospect for comprehensive tax reform this year. "That's pretty ambitious, but I know that if we made that a single focus I would be in favor of really working hard to get that done because that will I think something that will create certainty."

Eventually though, the fight over spending is likely to come full circle. Some lawmakers are already looking ahead to the fall - not for the election, but for when they anticipate the president will make another request to raise the statutory debt limit.

"The president did a debt ceiling deal. We increased it over $2 trillion and we'll mow through that in just over a year," Southerland said. "That's going to be an interesting timetable right there as a precursor for the November elections."

The administration hopes it will not become necessary to ask for an increase until after the election, but already, House Republicans are preparing for the showdown - vowing to oppose another increase to the debt limit.

"We can't just blindly stamp raising the debt ceiling without understanding the ramifications," Southerland said. "The laws of economics apply in Europe; the laws of economics apply here. We are literally committing the same fiscal errors that Europe has committed and so therefore, the same results will occur. It's just when the hammer drops here it's going to make a much larger noise because we are the largest economy in the world."

Rep. Marlin Stutzman, a freshman Republican from Indiana, says he would only vote for debt ceiling increase if it fell under the principles of Cut, Cap, and Balance.

"I'm not just going to easily vote for a debt ceiling increase when I haven't seen any effort by this administration or leadership in DC," Stutzman said. "It comes back to leadership and the president hasn't shown that. We have not seen a genuine effort from the Senate to rein in spending or reform our programs."