Democrats trudge ahead on legislative agenda

Congress returns from a two-week recess Monday facing a landscape scorched from the healthcare battle, partisan gridlock seemingly worse than ever and a pitched battle expected over the Supreme Court.

Despite the unfavorable signs, President Obama and Democrats have opportunities to enact major changes -- maybe even with at least a modicum of Republican support.

The fierce healthcare fight appears to have drained the desire to tackle politically bruising issues such as global warming this year, but the legislative agenda is laden with popular items that are hard to define in strictly partisan terms: legislation to extend unemployment benefits; a landmark bill to crack down on Wall Street excesses; additional efforts to bolster the still-anemic economic recovery; and possible ratification of a historic nuclear arms treaty.

The retirement of Supreme Court Justice John Paul Stevens puts pressure on the Senate to speed up action on top priority legislation before the court debate opens on the floor, likely this summer. The time crunch reduces the prospects for climate and immigration overhaul bills.

“Nothing’s coming easy in the Senate these days,” said Jim Manley, spokesman for Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.), “so add this [court nomination] to the list of things we’re going to have to deal with.”

But even Republican aides concede that the financial regulation bill is far enough along -- it has already passed the House and is expected to come to the Senate floor in the next month -- that it will not be derailed by the court debate.

The bill does not go as far as many want in reining in Wall Street, but experts say that even a more moderate version is likely to go further than any bill since the Great Depression in giving regulators power to prevent another financial crisis, avoid future bailouts and tackle the problem of institutions deemed “too big to fail.”

A measure to create more government regulation of business might sound like something Republicans would oppose. But many Republicans are as eager as Democrats to respond to the public’s angry view that Wall Street was responsible for the economy’s ills.

Before the Senate takes up financial regulation, Democratic leaders -- who no longer have a filibuster-proof majority -- will try to break an impasse over legislation to extend unemployment benefits that stalled on the eve of Congress’ spring recess.

Republicans had blocked the bill, arguing that the $9-billion cost of the one-month extension of benefits -- which lapsed for some 212,000 people after March 31 -- should be offset by other spending cuts to avoid raising the deficit.

Democrats will try to move the bill again Monday. When a similar fight was mounted a month ago, moderate Republicans broke ranks rather than allow jobless aid to expire in the name of deficit reduction. Republican leaders seem to believe that the argument has more potency now. But Democrats calculate that they will be able to gain the support of at least a few Republicans.

House and Senate Democratic leaders also hope this spring to advance legislation designed to counter a Supreme Court decision that would lift limits on campaign contributions by corporations. The bill’s prospects are unclear, but it fits into Democrats’ election-year strategy of portraying their agenda -- including healthcare, student loans and financial services overhauls -- as combating powerful special interests. And with an eye on Latino voters, Senate Democrats hope to bring an immigration overhaul to the floor for a vote, although prospects for enactment of a comprehensive bill are considered virtually nil.

Democrats are particularly eager to pass additional bills to spur job creation, such as pending legislation to create a lending pool for small businesses, to demonstrate their commitment to bolstering the economy.

One new political risk for Democrats is that even if such legislation is passed, it may not be noticed by recession-weary voters because of the expected Supreme Court fireworks -- in much the same way earlier jobs bills have been eclipsed by the healthcare debate.

“The American people have been telling Washington that promoting job growth must be the first priority,” Senate Republican Whip Jon Kyl of Arizona said Saturday in the GOP weekly address.

“But for more than a year, Congress and the president have focused instead on a controversial health spending bill, which a majority of Americans said they didn’t want,” he said.

But if Obama and congressional Democrats succeed in passing both an unemployment benefits extension on their terms and a financial regulation bill, they will have demonstrated that they can achieve significant goals despite the poisonous partisan atmosphere.

Even if they put their feet up right now and coasted into the midterm elections, Democrats would have accomplished much in their drive to upend the conservative tenets of the era that preceded Obama. The role of government has expanded; the tax burden has shifted to the wealthy; federal spending has flowed freely in Democrats’ drive to get the economy back on track. And abroad, Obama has completed negotiations with Moscow over the strategic arms treaty.