Web Chat: Summer 2010 Congressional Agenda

As we approach August recess, Congress has a full plate, including financial reform, unemployment benefits, climate change and the confirmation of Elena Kagan. Meanwhile, members are anxious to close down the session and hit the campaign trail in the critical midterm elections.

On July 14, Brookings expert Thomas Mann discussed the upcoming Congressional agenda in a live web chat moderated by POLITICO.

The transcript of this chat follows

David Mark: Congress has plenty on its plate in its main summer session. Thanks for joining us.

[Comment From Jennie: ] It looks like the Democrats have the votes they need in the Senate to pass financial reform – how do you see that playing out?

Tom Mann: I expect Reid will get a successful cloture vote and then later this week the Senate will approve the conference report. A major accomplishment.

[Comment From Danielle: ] What about the Kagan confirmation – what’s the scenario for her confirmation?

Tom Mann: Republicans delayed a vote on her confirmation by the Judiciary Committee for one week but it will move to the floor and be approved before the Senate adjourns for August. Republicans do not intend to filibuster her confirmation but individual senators may force Reid to go through the process of getting cloture. Few Republicans will support her nomination; all Democrats are expected to.

[Comment From Dennis Slater: ] How soon will Congress pass a full six-year reauthorization to improve our nation’s infrastructure and create new jobs?

Tom Mann: Not anytime soon.

[Comment From Tamara Sandoval: ] Will Congress return to the serious issue of unemployment extensions for the over those unemployed who have already exceeded their first 6 months of benefits? While millions have been unemployed for 12 months 18 months even 2 years and received extensions those who have just exceeded their first 6 months of benefits are not receiving any federal extensions benefits. Will Congress return to this issue or will they ignore this group’s difficulties and allow the benefits for these hardworking Americans to expire after only 6 months?

Tom Mann: The Senate has been tied in knots over this for weeks. Republicans are insisting on paying for the unemployment compensation with other stimulus funds. Democrats think that is crazy given the state of the economy — a false and purely symbolic concern about deficits. Something will almost certainly pass before they adjourn. I don’t believe Brown, Collins and Snowe can take the political heat.

[Comment From Carol Wayman: ] What will happen to the expiring tax cuts? Specifically, those mentioned by Brookings Retirement Security Policy staff.

Tom Mann: A fascinating question. Given the fragility of the economy and the unemployment rate, an end to these tax cuts in January would have a depressing effect on the economy. This might not get resolved until a lame duck session after the election. Most likely, in my view, is a temporary extension of most or all of the cuts.

[Comment From Kerby: ] Will they push ESEA Reauthorization through this session?

Tom Mann: No. Time is unavailable before August and the schedule will be full when they return in September.

David Mark: Sen. Michael Bennet (D-Colo.) has put forward a series of reform proposals dealing with Senate operations. Ideas include ending the filibuster and “holds,” and dramatically lengthening the cooling off period for former lawmakers and staff before they can lobby their former colleagues? Might any portion of these or similar ideas see the light of day this year?

Tom Mann: I expect a serious effort on Senate reform will be made after the election, at the start of the new Congress. A number of younger senators on both sides of the aisle are exploring changes short of eliminating the filibuster.

[Comment From Kerby: ] What will happen with Appropriations…CR, omnibus? What do you think will happen?

Tom Mann: Not a good year for timely appropriations. No formal budget resolution, only directives on overall discretionary spending in the next fiscal year. The House will move some bills but I expect a short-term CR including all of the appropriations bills.

[Comment From Kerby: ] Do you think the House will go Republican?

Tom Mann: There’s a good chance that it will but is by no means certain. A 30 seat loss would be a Democratic victory but would require some improving economic news, finally plugging the well in the Gulf, and an aggressive campaign against a still unpopular Republican party.

[Comment From Carol Wayman: ] Will an energy bill pass the Senate? What about a small business lending bill?

Tom Mann: Reid succeeded in moving a small business tax break and lending assistance bill along and it will now clear the Senate and ultimately be signed into law. An energy bill is a much heavier lift. Capping carbon emissions on utilities and beginning to put a price on carbon is not yet in reach. Subsidies for alternative energy and post-Gulf oil disaster measures are more likely.

[Comment From Terry: ] How will the fact that elections are coming up impact decisions made in Congress during the rest of this session?

Tom Mann: It makes Democrats desperate to produce some policy successes or strong contrasts with the Republicans. It reinforces Republican resolve to avoid negotiations and try to kill everything on the table.

[Comment From Chico: ] Will congress dare take on immigration – especially with elections upcoming?

Tom Mann: Without any support from Republicans, it is impossible for them to get it to the Senate floor.

[Comment From Kahlie: ] Will Reid find enough votes for the DISCLOSE Act? How might DISCLOSE be better structured to close campaign finance loopholes?

Tom Mann: No Republican senator has yet come aboard DISCLOSE but several may. After all, it’s almost entirely about transparency, something Republicans in the past championed. But it is now viewed in crassly partisan terms and it will be hard for Snowe, Collins and Brown to defect. Given the Court’s recent decisions, I think transparency is the way to go now, followed at some point by incentives for small donor financing of campaigns.

[Comment From Anne: ] How do you rate the odds on the President’s debt commission–Erskin Bowles/Alan Simpson–reaching agreement on recommendations, and if they do, odds on Congress taking action?

Tom Mann: The commission is doing the country a service by framing the deficit/debt problems and forcing serious people to face up to what will be required to deal with them. But the current Republican party is not ready to face the reality that tax increases (preferably in the context of tax reform) will be required.

[Comment From Eric: ] Does Congress have a list of bills and issues they must deal with before they leave? Those lists tend to shrink the closer we get to an election – have some issues already been knocked out of consideration?

Tom Mann: We haven’t mentioned the emergency war funding bill, which is a must pass, but disputes between the House and Senate make that very difficult. Opposition to the war in Afghanistan is growing in the House. Then there is the START Treat ratification, which will likely be delayed until a lame duck; same with the South Korean FTA. Additional aid to the states is also a high priority among Democrats but it is not clear how they will succeed in passing it. Other bills such as food safety are waiting in the wings with little time and no bipartisan disposition to get them done.

[Comment From Anne: ] Where do you think the Administration really stands on the pending FTAs with So.Korea, Panama & Colombia, and is there a realistic chance any will pass, perhaps in a lame duck?

Tom Mann: As I just commented, the Korean FTA has the best chance, assuming adjustments in auto and beef imports can be made and Chairman Sandy Levin decides to push for it along with President Obama. The President’s recent pro trade comments have been pleasing to business executives and policy wonks but upsetting to labor and most Democrats in Congress. All three FTAs will have to wait until a lame duck or the new Congress.

[Comment From Mike: ] Has this been a particularly active year in Congress, or does it just feel that way? How does Congress’s work in 2010 compare with previous years? In other words, have they accomplished a lot in a comparative sense?

Tom Mann: One of the ironies of the 111th Congress is that it has been remarkably productive in terms of passing major legislation but the overhang from the Global Financial Crisis and Great Recession together with the contentious and unified Republican opposition has persuaded the public that nothing constructive has been achieved. The old saw — no good deed goes unpunished — seems especially apt.

[Comment From Sarah: ] How do you think the Tea Party candidates will impact the agenda for the rest of the year, if at all, and how do they appeal to the mainstream audience while not putting off their base?

Tom Mann: They appear to be hardening Republican resolve to oppose any additional stimulus, including for unemployment benefits, or any new regulations on the private sector, including the financial community and the off-shore drilling industry. In the short term, the Tea Party probably helps Republicans in the midterm elections but greatly weakens their chance of being entrusted with the presidency.

[Comment From Carol Wayman: ] How successful would you say President Obama been on getting his legislative priorities enacted under this Congress?

Tom Mann: The stimulus, health reform and financial regulatory reform were major policy successes for the President although, as I said earlier, they came with a political price. Energy/climate change is the one major policy priority left undone. Education reform is a promising work in progress. Pulling strongly out of the recession, recovering the millions of lost jobs, and then making the pivot to fiscal consolidation are big problems remaining on his agenda.

[Comment From Paul: ] Has Barack Obama lost influence over Congress in the past few months? It seems that even though he has a “get-stuff-done” attitude, Congress has gone a bit rogue.

Tom Mann: Republicans have been rouge for 18 months. Democrats are getting testy as forecasts of their likely losses in November increase and many grow frustrated over his lack of success in selling the public on their considerable achievements. Some are also annoyed that he spends so much of his time trying to attract Republican support and provides insufficient sustenance to those doing the heavy lifting for him in Congress.

David Mark: Thanks for joining us today.

Tom Mann: Happy to be with you David.