WASHINGTON – U.S. lawmakers were heading back to work Monday to scale a mountain of staggering challenges, notably on climate change and health care, spurred by economic crisis and President Barack Obama's audacious agenda.
Democratic majorities in the Senate and House of Representatives have mostly hung together since Obama took office in January, running over Republicans to prime the stalled U.S. economy with trillions of dollars in spending.
But the Republicans have dug their political trenches, and hoped some swing-vote Democrats may balk at supporting the popular president as the battle proceeds on the economy and expands to ever-more politically volatile terrain.
And with Obama set to hold his first cabinet meeting Monday and declare a high-profile campaign to target government "waste," Republicans are already mocking the savings as a drop in the bucket of Washington spending.
"I appreciate the efforts to save millions by identifying unnecessary or duplicative government spending. But let's not forget that at the same time they're looking for millions in savings, the president's budget calls for adding trillions to the debt," said Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell.
Democrats and the White House point to opinion polls that show the U.S. public favors their approaches to managing the economic crisis as well as other issues like fighting climate change or addressing health care failings.
Key committees in the U.S. Senate, which returns Monday, and the House of Representatives, which returns Tuesday, were to take up both issues after a two-week legislative recess.
Republicans say they're ready for a fight after a week in which they heavily promoted demonstrations against Obama's 800-billion-dollar economic stimulus package and targeted swing-vote Democrats from conservative districts with ads criticizing them over the growing US debt.
Lawmakers also face fights over the federal budget for the fiscal year that begins October 1, efforts to ramp up US aid for Pakistan, and Obama's request for 83.4 billion dollars chiefly for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
The war supplemental -- which also includes hundreds of millions of dollars for projects like helping Mexico battle drug cartels and aiding the Palestinians -- is not in doubt, but critics of the conflicts are pushing, with some White House support, to craft clear benchmarks for progress.
In another early test, the Senate is expected to vote as early as Monday on cutting off the bitter debate on the confirmation of Christopher Hill as US ambassador to Iraq.
The chamber's Democratic majority is certain to confirm Hill, but must first overcome opposition from some Republicans, notably Senator Sam Brownback, to even voting on Hill over criticisms of how he led North Korea nuclear talks.
Battle lines were also being drawn on climate change after the US Environmental Protection Agency shifted course Friday by deeming carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases a health risk.
With global climate talks set for December in Copenhagen, Democrats say that the United States needs to take urgent action on a "cap-and-trade" system they say would punish polluters and encourage "green" energy to flourish.
Republicans and some Democrats from coal- or oil-production-reliant states warn of potentially catastrophic economic impacts from setting limits on emissions of so-called greenhouse gases blamed for global warming.
"We ought to make sure that we have new sources of energy, green energy, but we need nuclear energy, we need other types of alternatives and, yes, we need American-made oil and gas," said Republican House Minority Leader John Boehner.
Key House committees are set to take up cap-and-trade legislation written by Democratic Representatives Henry Waxman and Ed Markey.
Their draft bill aims to cut carbon emissions by 20 percent from their 2005 levels by 2020, and boost reliance on renewable sources of energy.
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