Congress returns from recess to even more of the same

By Shailagh Murray, The Washington Post

Yes, the same might be said of every Congress returning from every recess since lawmakers wore wigs and tights. But this time it could be a big problem, especially for the party in power.

When Barack Obama took office and the Democrats took control of Washington, they made ambitious promises about how much they’d get done, with or without Republican help. Now, with relatively few working days left before the November midterm elections (in part because lawmakers granted themselves another long break beginning at the end of July), they might not be able to convince skeptical, frustrated voters that they delivered — and that they deserve to stay in charge.

Bills to extend unemployment benefits and impose new regulations on the financial industry have yet to be resolved. An emergency war funding bill, loaded up with unrelated spending, faces a White House vetothreat. The Senate must still approve Elena Kagan‘s nomination to the Supreme Court.

Add to that coming debates over campaign finance legislation, long-awaited food-safety rules and a contentious defense authorization bill that would end the “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy on gays in the military.

As if that’s not enough, the Senate could add to the list. Sensing opportunity in the public’s outrage over the BP oil spill, Democrats are considering reviving the dormant climate-change debate. Majority Leader Harry M. Reid (D-Nev.) is assembling legislation that would expand alternative energy incentives and overhaul offshore drilling standards, while requiring BP to assume full liability for damages in the Gulf of Mexico. If Reid decides to do it, the bill could reach the Senate floor as soon as July 19.

One way to tell whether a climate bill is more than an election-year compromise: if it seeks to impose significant restrictions on greenhouse gases, along the lines of the “cap and trade” system that was included in the House legislation passed in June 2009.

Those caps led to fears of rising energy bills among members of both parties, especially in the coal-dependent Midwest, and would do so again this year, resulting in a bitter fight just weeks before the elections. (Translation: Don’t bet on it.) Instead, Senate Democrats are weighing a diluted version that would apply only to power plants; aides said even that could be dropped, depending on the resistance it meets.

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