WASHINGTON (Reuters) - President Barack Obama seems to be on the brink of winning passage of a landmark crackdown on Wall Street, and confirmation of a second U.S. Supreme Court nominee.
But Obama is unlikely to score many other major victories on Capitol Hill before the November election determines if his fellow Democrats will retain control of Congress.
With lawmakers jockeying for position, it’s tough to find common ground on such hot-button issues as immigration reform, climate change, deficit reduction and gays in the military.
Here’s a look at what Congress faces before Election Day -- and what it may do:
Few, if any, politicians want to be seen as defending Wall Street, which has been rocked by scandal and greed.
And that’s a big reason why the Senate seems ready to cap weeks of fierce debate and pass a comprehensive bill to tighten regulation of the U.S. financial industry.
The measure would then have to be merged with a similar bill passed by the House of Representatives before the president could sign it into law. Democrats and Republicans say they are confident that they will get there.
“The race was on last week for both parties to show how anti-bank they could be,” said Jaret Seiberg of Concept Capital, a private firm that tracks Washington for investors.
Obama disappointed many in his largely liberal base by nominating U.S. Solicitor General Elena Kagan, a moderate, to the U.S. Supreme Court.
But the president also seemed to silence talk by Republicans of trying to block her from winning Senate confirmation.
As Manuel Miranda of the conservative Third Branch Conference put it: “The president must be commended for shunning left-wing activists who demanded that he select a Supreme Court nominee who could promise results for the clients that fund their advocacy. He selected a perfectly reasonable nominee for a Democratic president.”
Regardless, given the political climate, the former Harvard Law School dean is certain to face a fight.
In fact, she may win Senate confirmation with a margin no better than Obama’s first Supreme Court nominee, Sonia Sotomayor: 68-31.
Democratic Senator John Kerry and Senator Joseph Lieberman, an independent, unveiled their long-delayed compromise climate change/energy bill last week.
But they did so without Republican Senator Lindsey Graham, who pulled out of talks, and some outside experts predict there is little if any chance Congress will approve it.
Kerry rejects such talk. He says lawmakers must act. He argues that the spreading oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico underscores what’s at stake in the drive for clean alternative energy, which the climate bill aims to foster.
Noting that he helped chair the first congressional hearings on climate change “22 wasted years ago,” Kerry said, “We’re not waiting any longer, we can do it now.”
Writing in The Washington Post on Sunday, Kerry said, “Conventional wisdom says that Congress ducks tough issues in election years, predicting at best a watered-down energy bill. The same doubters said health reform was dead until we passed it.”
Arizona’s tough new immigration law has stirred plenty of debate nationwide, but it has failed to get members of either political party in Washington to try to cut any deals.
More than two weeks after unveiling a sweeping plan to overhaul the U.S. immigration system, Senate Democrats are still looking for a Republican colleague to back it or even negotiate with them.
Republicans say U.S. borders must first be secured before there can be any talk of revamping the U.S. immigration system.
“Not going to happen this year,” said a veteran Capitol Hill lobbyist. “Perhaps they are teeing it up for next year.”
Well aware their own jobs are on the line, Democrats intend to keep pushing legislation to reduce the near double-digit U.S. unemployment rate.
Democrats have won bipartisan passage of a number of incremental job-creation bills. But they do not have the support for major legislation, which critics would denounce as more “big government” spending that would add to the record federal deficit.
The bipartisan presidential commission on deficit reduction held its first meeting last month. All agreed that unless the United States changes its habits, it is headed toward financial ruin.
The panel has yet to produce recommendations on reducing the deficit, but Democrats and Republicans aren’t likely to embrace the anticipated tough choices this election year: cutting spending, increasing taxes or a combination of both. In any case, it does not have to issue its report until December 1, a month after the elections.
Democrats introduced legislation to blunt the impact of a recent U.S. Supreme Court ruling that allows corporations, unions and other groups to spend unlimited funds on political campaigns. But with scant Republican support, the measure isn’t expected to get very far, at least not this year.
“No need to get ready for a bill-signing ceremony,” a Democratic aide said.
TAX BREAK EXTENDERS
Democrats and Republicans are expected to show some rare bipartisanship and retroactively extend politically popular tax breaks for individuals and businesses that expired last year.
The biggest business tax break is the 20 percent research and development credit. The package of “tax extenders” may include a provision to boost tax rates on private equity and real estate fund investors as a way to pay for it.
Obama negotiated an arms-reduction treaty with Russia. Now all he has to do is convince two-thirds of the Senate to ratify it. He’s expected to do so, but it may take a few months.
The president sent the pact to Capitol Hill for consideration last week and some Republicans promptly voiced concerns that it could backfire and create a less safe world.
The treaty would slash strategic nuclear arsenals deployed by the former Cold War foes by 30 percent within seven years.
Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman John Kerry says the pact deserves bipartisan support and has invited former Secretary of State James Baker, a Republican, to testify before his panel on Wednesday.
DON’T ASK, DON’T TELL
Obama told hecklers in California last month that he remains in favor of ending a ban against gays serving openly in the U.S. military. “So I don’t know why you are hollering,” the president said to gay-rights supporters.
Here’s why: with the Pentagon raising what appears to be a caution flag, Obama’s fellow Democrats in Congress don’t seem ready, willing or able to end the “Don’t ask, don’t tell” policy implemented in 1993 by then President Bill Clinton.
Additional reporting by Richard Cowan, Andy Sullivan, Kim Dixon; Editing by David Alexander and Eric Walsh
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