WASHINGTON — Congress will use its few remaining weeks in session before the Nov. 2 elections to debate and vote on issues that are less about legislating than they are about positioning for the elections.
On the agenda next week are possible votes on revamping the nation's immigration laws — pushed by Senate Democrats eager to win Hispanic votes in key states — as well as a Republican-engineered effort to block or at least slow the repeal of the military's ban on openly gay service members. However, the immigration law's not likely to be enacted, and the GOP blockade's not likely to prevail.
Both parties also want a pre-election vote on extending the Bush-era tax cuts, which expire at the end of the year. The White House and Democratic leaders want to extend only middle-class cuts. They want higher, pre-Bush rates to be reinstated on the wealthy, but 31 moderate Democrats in the House of Representatives are joining Republicans in resisting that.
Democratic leaders want a vote on the middle-class plan so they can paint Republicans as partners of the rich. Republicans are eager to vote on the tax question too: They want to paint Democrats as tax raisers, even during an economic slump. Whether either side will win — or instead Congress will put off the final vote until after the elections — isn't yet clear.
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Here's what's clear: "There isn't going to be a legislative process in the next three or four weeks," said Sen. Judd Gregg, R-N.H., who's retiring.
Lawmakers returned to Washington Monday after being off for a month. They knocked off work about 4 p.m. Thursday. The Senate won't reconvene until Tuesday afternoon, and the House of Representatives plans no votes until Wednesday evening. It's campaign season.
The Senate next week plans to consider defense legislation, which usually triggers days of earnest debate about the nation's military mission. But there's little prospect of that before the elections. Instead, efforts to bring up gays in the military and immigration as amendments to the bill are likely to dominate.
On immigration, the Senate will consider the Development Relief and Education of Alien Minors — or DREAM — Act, which would provide a conditional path to citizenship to high school graduating children of illegal immigrants.
Under the act, sponsored by Sen. Richard Durbin, D-Ill., and Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, undocumented immigrant youths with no criminal record who've been in the United States for at least five years would be eligible for citizenship, provided they earn at least a community college degree or complete two years of military service within six years.
Hatch said that adding the act to the defense bill is "the wrong thing to do."
On Thursday Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., who's up for re-election this year, challenged Senate Democratic Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., on the Senate floor about his motives. Reid's facing a tough fight for re-election and needs Hispanic voters to turn out for him.
McCain said that the immigration proposal "happens not to have a thing to do with our nation's defense."
Reid said that it's relevant because it would make it easier for some to serve in the military. "If a young man or woman of Hispanic origin decides that they want to join the United States military," he said, "they would have the right to do that. And after having served two years in the uniform of our country, they would be able to get a green card."
Some 26 percent of Nevada's population is Hispanic, and the Latino vote is credited with helping President Barack Obama carry the state two years ago. Democrats are in hotly contested Senate races in other states with large Hispanic populations, notably California, Colorado and Florida. Hence the urgent push for a vote on changing immigration law.
"Don't ask, don't tell" is another flashpoint.
The House voted earlier this year to repeal the 17-year-old policy, which bars gays and lesbians from serving openly in the armed forces. The Senate Armed Services Committee and the House of Representatives agreed, and the repeal is part of the defense bill, which will pass.
Meanwhile, the Pentagon's conducting a study of repeal's implications, due in December.
McCain, a Navy veteran, along with many Republicans, opposes a repeal effort "prior to the completion of a real and thorough review of the law." McCain said the rush to repeal the policy is "all to fulfill a campaign promise made by President (Barack) Obama in 2008."
Congress' most prolonged fight, and perhaps most politically consequential one, is over taxes.
Moderate Democrats made it clear this week that they're nervous about being put in a bad position — either backing their leaders and raising some taxes, or opposing their leaders and siding with Republicans.
Some moderates want all the tax cuts extended, at least for awhile.
"The more money we leave in private hands, the quicker our economic recovery will be," said Sen. Joseph Lieberman, a Connecticut independent who caucuses with Democrats, "and that means I will do everything I can to make sure Congress extends the so-called Bush tax cuts for another year."
In a letter signed by the 31 centrist House Democrats, they said "we have heard from a diverse spectrum of economists, small business owners and families who have voiced concerns that raising any taxes right now could negatively impact economic growth."
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., was unmoved.
"We always listen to members and ideas that they may have," she said, adding, "I see no justification giving a tax cut — going into debt to underwrite and subsidize tax cuts for the wealthiest people in America."
Some kind of tax-cut vote appears likely, probably first in the Senate, which has to overcome the hurdle of getting 60 votes to limit debate. Democrats there control 59 seats, and at least five of them side with Republicans against raising taxes on anyone.
Only one thing is certain to be passed: Before Congress adjourns, it will find a way to keep the government funded, probably with a temporary stopgap measure.
"This session is going to be a typical run-up to the election," Gregg said.
BEHIND UPCOMING LEGISLATION
ISSUE: Extension of Bush tax cuts.
ODDS OF PASSAGE BEFORE ELECTION: 50-50, though format is unclear.
REAL REASON FOR VOTE: Key talking point for both parties — Democrats want to be middle-class champions; Republicans want to show they'll cut taxes for everyone.
ISSUE: Block or slow repeal of don't ask don't tell.
ODDS OF SUCCESS BEFORE ELECTION: Tiny.
REAL REASON FOR VOTE: Republicans want to appear deferential to military leaders on the policy.
ODDS OF PASSAGE BEFORE ELECTION: Slim to none.
REAL REASON FOR VOTE: Democrats can say they tried to fulfill promise to Hispanic voters to revamp the nation's immigration laws. Democrats could force a vote to portray Republicans as anti-immigrant and intolerant.
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