Congress Returns To Talk Economy, But May Do Little

Congress gets back Monday from a five-week recess for what will be its last legislative session before voters decide lawmakers' fates in the midterm elections.

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President Obama used Friday's White House news conference to promote his agenda for Capitol Hill. But Republicans are hoping to win control of the House, and possibly the Senate as well, this fall, so electoral politics are likely to overshadow whatever the Democrats in charge try to get done.

The sputtering economy will clearly be the focus of lawmakers gathering for the session that is to last just four weeks. As usual, how much — if anything — is accomplished will depend on the Senate. Republicans there have the numbers to block any bill or nomination they want, and if they remain united, Democrats would be denied legislative victories to tout on the campaign trail.

But a crack in GOP unity appeared Friday. Retiring Ohio Republican George Voinovich told The Washington Post he could no longer back GOP efforts to block a long-stalled small-business bill that extends tax cuts and provides $30 billion for loans.

Obama highlighted that defection at the news conference. "Sen. Voinovich said this country is really hurting, and we don't have time anymore to play games. I could not agree more."

Voinovich also bucked his party by backing the proposal the president made this week to put $50 billion into a special fund for rebuilding roads, railways and airports. But that plan, which Republicans call a second stimulus, got a thumbs down even from some congressional Democrats, so it's unlikely to get far this fall.

The big fight everyone's girding for is over the Bush-era tax cuts. All will expire this year unless Congress extends them. Obama wants the cuts made permanent — except those for households earning more than $250,000. Republicans insist on extending all the tax cuts.

On Friday, for the first time, the president said there will be what he called "room for discussion" with Republicans about those high-end tax cuts.

"What they've said is they agree that the middle-class tax cuts should be made permanent. Let's work on that. Let's do it," he said. "We can have a further conversation about how they want to spend an additional $700 billion to give an average of a hundred thousand dollars to millionaires. That, I think, is a bad idea."

But it's not only Republicans pushing to extend the tax cuts for the wealthiest. There are also at least three Democrats and one independent in the Senate who want them renewed. Among them is Nebraska Democrat Ben Nelson.

"The expiration of the tax cuts constitutes a tax increase to individuals, and I think that's a very challenging thing to do, even if I agreed to do it, and I don't," he said.

The likely congressional fight over tax cuts this fall could crowd out other Democratic priorities, such as a long-stalled food safety bill. Its backers had hoped the measure would get a boost following the discovery last month of widespread egg contamination.

Also pending is the annual defense authorization bill. It's been stalled in the Senate because of objections to a provision approved by the House that repeals "don't ask, don't tell" — the policy that bars gays from serving openly in the armed forces. A federal judge ruled on Thursday that the policy is unconstitutional; that action could spur lawmakers to resolve the issue themselves.

But that could take time, and there's not much time left before Congress decamps for the midterms.

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