Scenarios: Congress eyes election battle issues

By Thomas Ferraro

WASHINGTON (BestGrowthStock) – President Barack Obama seems headed in coming weeks toward winning enactment of a landmark crackdown on Wall Street, and confirmation of a second Supreme Court nominee.

But he’s unlikely to score many other big victories on Capitol Hill before voters decide in the November election whether to keep his fellow Democrats in control of Congress.

With lawmakers jockeying for position amid anti-Washington fervor, it’s tough to find much common ground on such hot-button issues as immigration, climate change, deficit reduction and an Obama-backed bid to lift a 17-year-old ban against gays serving openly in the U.S. military.

Here’s a look at what Congress faces before Election Day:

FINANCIAL REFORM

Lawmakers up for re-election don’t want to be seen as sticking up for Wall Street.

That’s why House and Senate negotiators are expected to quickly merge bills passed by their respective chambers to tighten regulation of the financial industry.

Democrats aim to get a final measure to Obama to sign into law before Congress’ July 4 recess.

“It’s a done deal,” said Ethan Siegal of The Washington Exchange, a private firm that tracks Congress for investors.

“The only question is what changes might be made to strengthen or soften the Senate bill, which is the one they will work off of,” Siegal added.

SUPREME COURT

Obama disappointed many in his largely liberal base by nominating U.S. Solicitor General Elena Kagan, a moderate, to the U.S. Supreme Court.

But his seemingly safe choice also silenced talk of Republicans trying to deny her Senate confirmation with a procedural hurdle.

Regardless, given the political climate, the former Clinton White House lawyer is certain to face tough questioning at her Senate confirmation hearing, set to begin on June 28.

In fact, Kagan, 50, will likely be confirmed with a margin no better than Obama’s first Supreme Court nominee, Sonia Sotomayor: 68-31.

CLIMATE CHANGE/ENERGY

Senate Democrats over the next couple of weeks will assess their chances for passing comprehensive legislation to cut pollution blamed for global warming.

The worst oil spill in U.S. history, which is still unfolding in the Gulf of Mexico, is prompting Congress to look at new limits on offshore oil drilling and added safety procedures.

This could open the door for a debate on legislation encouraging the use of more alternative energy and maybe even whether to tackle a climate change bill.

Senate Democratic leader Harry Reid wants to have a bill on the Senate floor next month, but its shape is uncertain.

“We need a policy that fully recognizes the obvious and hidden costs of the way we produce and consume energy today,” Reid said on Monday. “We cannot wait to act until after more tragedies and disasters happen.”

But at The Washington Exchange, analyst Siegal said, “They’ve waited too long” already. Siegal said he sees prospects of passage of such a bill this year as slim.

IMMIGRATION

Obama is sending 1,200 National Guard personnel to bolster security on the U.S.-Mexican border.

But the president and his fellow Democrats in Congress have been unable to get Republicans to agree to any comprehensive overhaul of the U.S. immigration system.

At least some bipartisan support would be needed in the Senate to clear Republican procedural hurdles.

During a meeting with Senate Republicans last month, Obama said: “I don’t even need you to meet me halfway. Meet me a quarter of the way.”

DEFICIT REDUCTION

With polls showing mounting voter concern about the ever-increasing federal debt, Obama is stepping up efforts to do something about it.

The White House announced this week that it has directed federal agencies to develop plans for 5 percent reductions in an array of domestic programs.

The president complains that the deficits are a legacy of the Bush administration. But Republicans argue that they are also the result of Obama’s handling of the economy.

The recently created bipartisan presidential commission on deficit reduction agrees that unless the United States shapes up, it is headed toward financial ruin.

But many Democratic and Republican lawmakers are unlikely to cut spending, increase taxes or embrace a combination of both before Election Day.

JOBS/TAXES

Senate Democratic leaders on Tuesday proposed an economic package that would extend benefits for the long-term unemployed and renew business tax breaks as a way to create jobs.

To help cover the anticipated cost of more than $100 billion, the measure would raise taxes on investment fund managers, but at a lower level than legislation approved the last month by the House.

“With so many Americans out of work, our country needs Congress to enact this legislation,” Senate Finance Committee Chairman Max Baucus said in introducing the bill.

Republicans promptly said the measure amounted to fiscal recklessness and accused Democrats of misleading the public.

Senator Charles Schumer, a member of Democratic leadership, said, “We fully expect to have the 60 votes we need to pass this bill by early next week.”

CAMPAIGN FINANCE

Democrats introduced legislation to blunt the impact of a recent U.S. Supreme Court ruling that allows corporations, unions and other groups to spend unlimited funds on political campaigns.

But with scant Republican support and some anticipated Democratic opposition, the measure isn’t expected to get very far this year.

ARMS TREATY

Obama negotiated an arms-reduction treaty with Russia. Now he must convince two-thirds of the Senate to ratify it; he would like to get this done before the November election.

First, though, Obama needs to overcome Republican worries that the United States has little to gain from the treaty and could lose its freedom of action on missile defense.

The Senate Foreign Relations Committee is holding hearings and its chairman, Democrat John Kerry, hopes the panel will approve the new START before the August congressional recess.

The treaty would slash strategic nuclear arsenals deployed by the former Cold War foes by 30 percent within seven years.

WAR

The House is expected to follow the Senate’s lead in coming weeks and approve some $33 billion to finance the 30,000 troop “surge” in Afghanistan that Obama announced in December, and pay for U.S. military forces still in Iraq.

While a number of liberal Democrats have become increasingly critical of the Afghan war, Obama is expected to muster the needed bipartisan support to win final congressional approval of the funding.

“DON’T ASK, DON’T TELL”

Senator Joe Lieberman quoted baseball great and famed philosopher Yogi Berra when asked if expects Congress to repeal a ban against gays serving openly in the U.S. military.

“It’s never over till it’s over,” Lieberman said in injecting one of the most famous “Yogi-isms” into this Capitol Hill showdown.

Then the senator added that backers have what’s often needed in sports and in Congress: “We have some momentum.”

Indeed, the Senate Armed Services Committee voted last month to move toward lifting the “Don’t ask, Don’t tell” policy — and the full House of Representatives agreed.

Even if the full Senate provides its needed concurrence, repeal would require certification by Obama, the Defense Department and the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff that the change would not hurt troop readiness, cohesion and retention.

The Pentagon is to complete its own review by December 1.

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(Additional reporting by Richard Cowan, Susan Cornwell, Kim Dixon and Donna Smith; Editing by David Alexander and Alan Elsner)

Scenarios: Congress eyes election battle issues