Congress has limited time to get through a full plate of legislation before its scheduled adjournment on September 26—its last day of official business before the November election. Both the House and Senate’s agendas include an energy package intended to lower oil prices and invest in a renewable energy initiative, a second stimulus package, and authorization of the defense agenda for the coming year. But the most urgent item will be completing the fiscal year 2009 appropriations process, which must be addressed by the end of the month in order to fund the federal government for the coming year.
Most of the 12 appropriations bills will be rolled into a continuing resolution, which will fund the government for a limited time until the official bills can be passed. This will be done in order to bypass the funding fights that may occur with a lame duck president. President George W. Bush, as he did last year, has threatened to veto any appropriations measure that goes over his desired top-line spending figure.
The continuing resolution will most likely extend funding for the federal government into early 2009, at which point the 111th Congress will have to reach agreement with the next administration about the remainder of the FY2009 funding.
Congress may pass the Military Construction and Veterans Affairs, Defense, or Homeland Security appropriations as stand-alone bills, but the majority of funding will come from a continuing resolution. The Department of Interior appropriations bill has, for the past several decades, been the vehicle for extending the offshore drilling ban, and it is possible that conservatives will put up a fight over the continuing resolution if legislators try to include another extension of the moratorium on offshore drilling.
There is a strong possibility that Congress will debate a comprehensive energy package before the end of the session. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) has signaled her willingness to permit a vote on allowing limited offshore exploration as long as it is a part of a broader energy package. Other pieces of that package may include provisions to curb oil market speculation and gas price gouging, encourage more reliance on clean-burning natural gas, promote conservation and renewable energy initiatives, and withdrawal oil from the Strategic Petroleum Reserve.
Some senators have signaled their support for the “Gang of 10” energy plan, as introduced by Senators Kent Conrad (D-ND) and Saxby Chambliss (R-GA). The plan would tie new offshore drilling to a rollback of tax breaks and royalty-free leases for oil companies, as well as a requirement to drill on existing leases. Incentives for development of alternative energy sources, new technologies, and mass transit would also be part of the package.
The House is expected to take up another economic stimulus package. This could include items such as increased funding for the Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program, infrastructure spending, increased funding for food stamps, additional disaster relief assistance, and possibly an energy rebate. It could also include a proposal of $500 for individuals and $1,000 for families to help pay for rising energy prices.
Both houses will have to pass the 2009 Defense Authorization bill. The annual authorization measure sets defense policy, but debate over the measure this year is not expected to include any significant changes to Iraq war operations. The first order of business for the Senate will be a vote to invoke cloture on the motion to proceed on the Defense Authorization bill.
The Senate may try to extend a series of popular tax breaks that are set to expire at the end of the year. The Senate failed to invoke cloture on a House-passed tax extenders bill in the week before the August recess. If all members are present and they vote as they have in the past, the Senate will have only 57 of the 60 votes needed to end debate. The extenders being debated include the child tax credit, renewable energy tax breaks, research and development tax breaks, and an AMT patch, among others.
Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV) has also said that he would like to bring equal pay legislation and increased funding for the LIHEAP program back for a vote sometime before the end of the session. Both bills—the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act and the Warm in Winter and Cool in Summer Act—received a majority of votes, but failed to reach the 60 votes needed to end a filibuster. The Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay act failed 56-42, and the LIHEAP bill failed 50-35.