WASHINGTON – Congress returns to work today with election-year politics certain to shape an already limited agenda.
Republicans intend to focus on every facet of President Barack Obama’s health care law. They see a political boost in its problem-plagued rollout as the GOP looks to maintain its House majority and seize control of the Democratic-led Senate.
First up in the House, according to Majority Leader Eric Cantor, R-Va., is legislation addressing the security of personal data, part of his party’s effort “to protect the American people from the harmful effects of Obamacare.”
Republicans also promise closer scrutiny of the administration’s tally of enrollment numbers in the program.
Democrats will press to raise the federal minimum wage from $7.25 an hour and extend unemployment benefits, trying to cast the party as more concerned with the less fortunate and intent on dealing with income inequality. The issues resonate with liberals, the core Democratic voters crucial in low-turnout midterm elections.
Rep. Steny Hoyer of Maryland, the No. 2 Democrat in the House, said an extension of federal benefits for an estimated 1.3 million Americans who saw their payments stopped Dec. 28 is more than an economic issue.
“It’s about real people, people with families struggling to put food on the table, to make ends meet, including … 200,000 military veterans who are among these folks who are losing their benefits,” he told reporters Friday.
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., scheduled a vote tonight on legislation by Sens. Jack Reed, D-R.I., and Dean Heller, R-Nev., to extend jobless benefits for three months.
However, Sen. Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., said he is unsure Democrats can cobble together 60 votes needed to overcome a procedural hurdle.
“If we don’t get the 60, we will come back at this issue,” he promised.
President Barack Obama already has scheduled a White House event Tuesday with some whose benefits expired at the end of December.
“Instead of punishing families who can least afford it, Republicans should make it their New Year’s resolution to do the right thing and restore this vital economic security for their constituents right now,” Obama said Saturday in his weekly radio and Internet address.
Republicans hinted they might go along with extending benefits if they win spending cuts from Reid elsewhere to pay for them.
“If the senator comes up with any kind of a reasonable idea to offset the $26 billion, I think that he might find some people that are willing to talk to him,” said Rep. Matt Salmon, R-Ariz.
Schumer, one of his party’s leaders, said Democrats would prefer to pass the proposal as is – without a way to pay for it, as has been the case for previous extensions. But he told reporters Sunday he would listen to GOP suggestions.
During a separate interview, Reid predicted widespread inaction would be the norm “unless the Republicans in Congress decide they should do something for the American people, I’m sorry to say.”
Such rancor ruled in the first session of the 113th Congress with few bills passed and sent to the president. The combination of divided government and the upcoming elections stand as an obstacle to major legislation in the second session, counting down to November when all 435 House seats and 35 Senate seats will be on the ballot.
Still, Congress must deal with some significant unfinished business before delving deep into political votes and extended breaks for campaigning.
The Senate was to vote today on Obama’s nomination of Janet Yellen to become the head of the Federal Reserve. If confirmed, Yellen would become the first woman to fill the powerful post, replacing Ben Bernanke.
Lawmakers face a Jan. 15 deadline to agree on a spending bill to keep the government running and avoid a partial shutdown that roiled Congress last fall. Passage of legislation in December scaling back the automatic, across-the-board cuts gave the House and Senate Appropriations Committees time to draft a massive, trillion-dollar-plus measure to run the government through September.
A short-term measure is likely this month just to let the government continue operating.
The GOP-controlled House and Democratic-led Senate spent a chunk of last year wrangling over renewing the nation’s farm bill after passing competing versions of the five-year, roughly $500 billion measure. In dispute are crop subsidies and how deeply to cut the $80 billion-a-year food stamp program, with the House slashing $4 billion and the Senate $400 million annually.
Several contentious issues loom in the near term.
Twenty-six senators have signed on to a new Iran sanctions bill that Obama opposes while his administration negotiates with the Iranian government over its nuclear program. Proponents of the legislation are seeking to gain the support of further senators when Congress reconvenes, with the hope of a full Senate vote this month.
Although the issue may not be an immediate legislative priority for returning lawmakers, it could become a major point of discussion as advocates and opponents of fresh penalties make their cases.
Reid spared the administration a vote in December, but this month he may not be able to hold off proponents of tough sanctions.
The majority leader did promise Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, D-N.Y., a vote on her legislation to give victims of rape and sexual assault in the military an independent route outside the chain of command for prosecuting attackers. Her solution would take the decision from commanders and give it to seasoned military lawyers.
The top echelon of the military, the Democratic chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee and other Senate Democrats and Republicans oppose her plan. Reid backs it, as do several top Senate conservatives such as Ted Cruz, R-Texas, and Paul, but Gillibrand is still short of the 60-vote, filibuster-proof threshold.
Unclear is whether the House will tackle major legislation to overhaul immigration laws. Advocates remain hopeful. But some House Republicans still resist any legislation, fearing it would lead to a final bill that includes a path to citizenship for the estimated 11 million immigrants living in the country illegally.
Salmon and Reid spoke to CBS’ “Face the Nation.”