Congress Returns to Full Agenda Awash in Election Year Politics

John Boehner

For months, the Obama campaign has plotted to run directly against Republicans in Congress. With Mitt Romney now settled in as the presumptive presidential nominee and leader of his party, Democrats are hoping that some disenchantment with the House Republicans’ legislative agenda – and the frequent intransigence of some of its most conservative members – will help bolster President Obama’s standing, and give some glow to their own House and Senate races.

As Congress returns Monday after a week’s recess, that strategy will be put to one of its first major tests as various pieces of legislation move to the front burner of partisan discord.

The most high profile fight is over how to extend interest rates on student loans. Before leaving town, the House passed a bill that would prevent rates on subsidized undergraduate loans from reverting from 3.4 percent to 6.8 percent, but would pay for the measure by removing $5.9 billion from a prevention program within the health care law.

Senate Democrats will now move forward with their own bill – beginning with a procedural vote on Tuesday — that would extend the rates by closing some tax loopholes for those with high incomes. They have dismissed the House bill, which Mr. Obama already said he would veto, as damaging a health care program that aids women and children.

But the problem for Democrats is that 13 of their own members voted for the House bill – helping to put it over the top when scores of Republicans who dislike the idea of extending the loan rates voted no – and it is not clear that the health program in question is especially beneficial to women.

House Republicans have their own problem with the many members of their own conference opposing a bill that is popular with many middle class American families struggling to pay college bills. This is the fight to watch – will Mr. Obama get to accuse Republicans of holding out on students, as Democrats hope, or will Republicans be effective at pressing their case that their measure is most reasonable, quieting the Democrat’s charge?

A similar dynamic is at work on a transportation bill, which will slide into a bipartisan, bicameral conference committee this week. Again, many House Democrats voted for a short-term extension passed in the House, referred to by House Speaker John A. Boehner as the “Keystone bill” for its provision that would speed up approval processes of a pipeline proposal.

But many Republicans also voted for a longer-term Senate version that had no such provision and was generally less controversial.

So, will Democrats get to live another day explaining how the original House bill was such a mess it could barely get to that chamber’s floor, or will Republicans succeed in using the measure to pound the table with their claims that Mr. Obama does not support domestic oil production, even though that case is hardly without its own flaws?

Many Democrats support the Keystone project, so the political scorecard from this highway bill – which means a great deal to states and localities – will begin to be filled in this week.

Then, there is the Violence Against Women Act, a once-not-controversial measure that has become mired in partisan politics. The Senate – with many Republicans concurring — overwhelmingly passed a renewal measure that would subject non-American Indian suspects of domestic violence to prosecution on reservations in tribal courts and expand the number of temporary visas for illegal-immigrant victims of domestic violence.

Those new additions to the law have offended House Republicans, who will begin to work this week on the fine points of their own measure that is stripped of these provisions, setting up a fight between Democrats, who have tried all spring to portray Republicans as “anti-woman” and Mr. Boehner, who is trying with all his might to push back. This measure could well enhance – or kneecap – another central campaign theme for Democrats, depending on how it unfolds this week and next.

A huge spending fight is also on the horizon this week as the House Budget Committee completes a $300 billion 10-year spending package that would maintain defense spending but makes large cuts to nutrition and other programs for poor Americans. The budget priorities of each party are what best defines their political differences, and may yet define the 2012 campaign.

Finally, while Democrats hoped to use Republican opposition to extend the life of the Export-Import Bank to demonstrate how the party is hurting the nation’s fragile economic recovery, Representatives Steny H. Hoyer of Maryland, the House minority whip, and Eric Cantor of Virginia, the House majority leader, have cobbled together a deal that would increase the bank’s lending limit to $140 billion over three years, a 40 percent increase from the current $100 billion limit that the bank has almost reached. But such an agreement will run into the buzz saw of many conservatives who want to let the institution die.

Mr. Boehner has attempted to stamp out various controversies as they have arisen by coming up with fast House bills and by keeping the focus of the Republican message on jobs and gas prices, but his own party colleagues have sometimes undermined that effort. Democrats believe their have the upper political hand on bills pertaining to women and core middle-class policy issues, but when their own members help bail out House Republican bills, it hurts their efforts.

Watch. Wait.

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