The next few weeks could turn out to be the most important politically in the remainder of this year. Because this may be the last chance Congress has of passing any big or contentious legislation, before politics consumes everything (even more than at the current time). This is due to a combination of factors, but mostly boils down to the congressional calendar and the midterm election season.
Congress is back in session in Washington, D.C. In another few weeks, they'll be taking their traditional five or six weeks off for August. September they'll get back together again, and go through the motions, but don't expect a lot to be passed so close to the actual election. Then, if the past is any measure, they'll all take most of October and the beginning of November off again, to finish campaigning. After the ballots are counted, there may be a rousing lame duck session, and then we'll be into next year and a new Congress.
Because of the extended breaks from working in August and October, and because it's traditional not to get much done (other than scoring political points) in September, the next few weeks are going to be crucial not just for legislation to be passed this year, but also for Democrats' chances of getting re-elected by "running on their record."
So far, there are a few enormous things on this short schedule. The first of which is passing the Wall Street reform bill through its last Senate vote, and putting it on Obama's desk. Majority Leader Harry Reid started the clock ticking on this vote, which will likely be held this Thursday (and which, at this point, it seems like Democrats will win). This can be a keystone issue for Democrats on the campaign trail -- "We stood with Main Street, Republicans bowed down to Wall Street" -- if they would only expend a tiny bit of energy trying to sell their own accomplishments to the voters (which, being Democrats, is always an open question).
Other big issues which could make it through Congress in the next few weeks are the confirmation of President Obama's second pick for the Supreme Court, and possibly the beginning of the end of "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" (currently part of a military appropriations bill). Both of these will serve to rally the Democratic base, although opposition will likely also serve to rally the Republican base as well. This will set the stage for October.
After working a few weeks, the exhausted congresscritters will need five or six weeks to rest, of course, which they take every year to escape the miasmal August weather in our nation's capital. The big question is whether 2010's August break will be anything like 2009's. Last summer, you'll remember, was the year of the "Town Halls From Hell." It remains to be seen whether this year will see a repeat of this, since health reform has already passed. Perhaps there'll be angry Tea Partiers this year, or perhaps it was a one-year phenomenon, who knows? Or perhaps the congressfolk learned their lesson and won't be scheduling many town halls at all (another distinct possibility).
But this year, at least, Democrats will have the opportunity to be on offense rather than last year's defensive crouch. If Democrats have delivered Wall Street reform to President Obama's desk, then they will have something positive to report to their constituents when they go home in August. Republicans have painted themselves into the same corner with the Wall Street tycoons, which is not exactly the best place to be politically these days. But only if Democrats can manage to point this out to the voters, of course. In particular, the Consumer Financial Protection Agency is going to be a big plus when Democrats explain just what this new law means to the average American.
September, everyone will creep back into Washington for a month of political hay-making. This, I should point out, is traditional no matter who the "in" and "out" parties happen to be at the time -- they both do it. Right before the election, what will happen is that Democrats will force some politically uncomfortable votes on Republicans. Most of the stuff they're voting on (especially in the Senate) will likely fail. But it will leave a record. This record will be used as ammunition in the last two months of the campaign "Senator Bedfellow voted against raising military pay," or, perhaps, "Congressman Smith actually voted against honoring Mother's Day, just because Democrats were voting for it... does he hate his mother, or what?!?"
Now, I'll fully admit, Republicans are usually a lot better at this game than Democrats. But this time, Democrats hold both houses and can schedule votes on anything they feel like -- which gives them a huge advantage in the political hot-issue sweepstakes. My guess is that Speaker Nancy Pelosi will wind up being more adept at this tactic than Reid, but maybe that's just me.
But don't look for any important, sweeping legislation to pass in September. Except possibly a few budget-type bills which have deadlines for passage (in other words, government checks will start bouncing unless Congress acts), not a whole lot is going to be accomplished in this frenzy of political activity. Don't look for a big energy bill to pass the Senate, or comprehensive immigration reform or anything of that scope, in other words.
October, of course, means everyone goes back on the old campaign trail again. Meaning absolutely nothing will get done, legislatively speaking. Which brings up right up to the election itself.
The most interesting period in Congress this year, other than the next few weeks, may be November and December. This will be the "lame duck session" of Congress, where people who have already been voted out of their seats get to cast their last votes before packing up their offices. If, as just about everyone is predicting, Democrats have smaller numbers after the election, then there may be a last-ditch effort to shove a few remaining things through before the lights go out (again, this is traditional, both parties engage in this sort of thing).
The biggest thing which may make it to Obama's desk at this point is likely to be some sort of cobbled-together energy bill. There's a reason for this -- starting next January, if Congress hasn't acted, the Environmental Protection Agency is going to start regulating carbon. That is a deadline which makes Republicans (and Blue Dog Democrats) tremble in their boots -- because if they don't act, the E.P.A. will. So I expect a flurry of last-minute dealmaking and an energy bill between Thanksgiving and Christmas, most likely. There are other issues which may squeak through during the lame duck session -- perhaps a "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" repeal (if it hasn't already been signed into law) after the Pentagon releases their study on how they're going to move beyond this policy, which is due out at the beginning of December. Also a possibility is some sort of bill which would extend the Bush tax cuts which actually did help average Americans (ending the marriage penalty, the hike in child exemption credits, etc.), while taking no action on the tax cuts for the wealthy, which would then automatically expire.
While this entire column may sound a bit cynical, this is the nature of an election year. I have to say that, personally, I've actually been surprised at how much the Democrats have managed to get done this year so far. Normally the "campaign season" encompasses the entire year, but this year health reform was finished, and now Wall Street reform is heading to the finish line as well. Meaning that, already, Congress has been more productive than in normal election years.
But, unless you want to hang your hopes on the lame duck session, the next few weeks are going to define the political landscape for the rest of this year, including the election. To put it another way, if you've got a big pet issue you're waiting to see some action on, it's either going to happen in the next few weeks, or else it probably won't happen at all this year.
-- Chris Weigant
Follow Chris on Twitter: @ChrisWeigant