Congress to Return to Crush of Challenges

Monday, 05 Sep 2011 06:36 AM

 

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A highly unpopular U.S. Congress returns to work from a monthlong recess this week facing a crush of challenges — from creating jobs to expanding U.S. trade to finding another $1.2 trillion or so in spending cuts.

With voters demanding more compromise and less acrimony in Washington, lawmakers are under pressure to find elusive common ground with Democratic President Barack Obama on these and other matters, such as taxes, regulations and disaster aid.

The Democratic-led Senate returns Tuesday, with the Republican-led House back to work the next day. Opinion polls, taken in the aftermath of the bitter U.S. debt ceiling showdown last month, put Congress' approval rating at a record low of about 12 percent.

Here is a look at what's on the legislative agenda:

 

OBAMA JOBS SPEECH TO CONGRESS

Obama plans to unveil his latest jobs-creation plan in a nationally televised address to a joint session of Congress Thursday. Throughout Obama's presidency, the U.S. jobless rate has been stuck at high levels — staying at 9.1 percent in August. Polls show most voters have lost confidence in his economic leadership. Congress has not fared much better.

The president is expected to recommend tax breaks to businesses that expand their payrolls, a jobs-intensive road-building program and new relief for homeowners.

SUPERCOMMITTEE

Congress, which went on vacation after a bruising fight over the record U.S. debt, returns for another budget battle that likely will last through the end of the year.

A "super committee" of six Democrats and six Republicans from the House and Senate is to hold its first meeting Thursday and its first public hearing Sept. 13. Its mission is to come up with at least $1.2 trillion in savings over 10 years.

If a majority of the committee fails to reach a deal by Nov. 23, automatic spending cuts of at least $1.2 trillion would be set in motion, split between defense and non-defense.

FEDERAL REGULATIONS

House Republicans aim to hold a vote each week to repeal 10 federal labor and environmental regulations on businesses that they say stunt job growth.

They are expected to face opposition in the Senate where Democrats contend that targeted regulations are vital to clean air and water, safe workplaces and safe consumer goods.

 

APPROPRIATIONS

Having already pushed the government to the brink of a shutdown and an unprecedented default this year, lawmakers seem to have little, if any, appetite to set the stage for another crisis any time soon. So expect them to figure out spending measures for the new fiscal year that begins Oct. 1 without threatening to close the government.

The House and the Senate have agreed on the total amount they will spend, but are likely to clash on details. Look for Congress to extend current funding levels for several months as the two chambers resolve their differences.

 

DISASTER FUNDING

Obama is expected to ask Congress for extra funds to help the East Coast recover from Hurricane Irene, likely to go down as one of the costliest U.S. disasters with damage estimates topping $7 billion.

House Republican leader Eric Cantor has insisted that any federal relief must be offset with spending cuts to avoid adding to the budget deficit, projected to hit $1.3 trillion this year.

 

FREE TRADE DEALS

The White House is expected to formally submit three long-delayed free trade agreements with South Korea, Colombia and Panama to Congress for approval in September or October. The White House is still seeking more assurance from House Republicans that a separate Trade Adjustment Assistance program to help retrain workers displaced by trade will be renewed.

 

RUSSIA TRADE

With Russia on the verge of joining the World Trade Organization, the Obama administration needs to persuade Congress to approve "permanent normal trade relations" with Russia by lifting the so-called Jackson-Vanik amendment that tied trade relations with Communist countries to the rights of Jews and other religious minorities to freely emigrate.

 

PALESTINIAN STATEHOOD

Palestinian plans to seek United Nations' endorsement of statehood in September are bound to raise protests on Capitol Hill.

House Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Ileana Ros-Lehtinen has a bill to cut off U.S. funds to any U.N. organization that embraces an upgrade to the Palestinians' diplomatic status. It may pass the House but Senate prospects are poor.

 

PATENT REFORM

In a rare display of bipartisanship, the Senate is expected to give final congressional approval to a patent reform bill backed by the president and passed by the House in June.

 

ENDANGERED FIGHTER JET

The Pentagon's costliest arms purchase, the Lockheed Martin Corp-built F-35 Joint Strike Fighter aircraft, may be scaled back as part of the drive to cut spending. Current plans are to buy 2,443 at a cost of more than $382 billion. Lawmakers from states that benefit from F-35-related jobs are leading a charge to defend it.

 

U.S. POSTAL SERVICE

The U.S. Postal Service will default on a $5.5 billion payment for retiree health benefits unless lawmakers step in before the end of September. The agency has asked Congress to eliminate Saturday mail delivery, give it flexibility to close post offices and allow it to dip into a retirement-fund surplus to pay off other obligations.

 

REGULATORY NOMINEES

The Senate Banking Committee has a list of regulatory nominees that must be approved before the Senate can confirm them. The most controversial is Richard Cordray as the first director of the new Consumer Financial Protection Bureau. Republicans have threatened to block the nomination of any CFPB director until Obama agrees to make changes, which Democrats oppose, to the structure of the agency. The committee plans a Sept. 6 confirmation hearing on the Cordray nomination.

 

FEDERAL AVIATION ADMINISTRATION

Lawmakers must approve another temporary extension for Federal Aviation Administration's construction programs by Sept. 16. The current one was approved last month after a two-week partisan standoff that temporarily idled thousands of workers and triggered plenty of angry finger-pointing.

© 2014 Thomson/Reuters. All rights reserved.

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