Immigration, student loans top congressional agenda

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WASHINGTON (AP) — Republicans and Democrats will put good will to the test when Congress returns this week to potentially incendiary fights over nominations, unresolved disputes over student loans and the farm bill, and the uncertainty of whether lawmakers have the political will to rewrite the nation’s immigration laws.

The cooperation evident in the Senate last month with passage of a bipartisan immigration bill could be wiped out immediately if Majority Leader Harry Reid, Nevada Democrat, frustrated with the GOP’s delaying tactics on judges and nominations, tries to change the Senate rules by scrapping the current three-fifths majority for a simple majority.

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, Kentucky Republican, has indicated it’s a decision Mr. Reid could regret if the GOP seizes Senate control in next year’s elections.

“Once the Senate definitively breaks the rules to change the rules, the pressure to respond in kind will be irresistible to future majorities,” Mr. McConnell said last month, looking ahead to 2014, when Democrats have to defend 21 seats to the GOP’s 14.

Mr. McConnell envisioned a long list of reversals from the Democratic agenda, from repealing President Obama’s health care law to shipping radioactive nuclear waste to Yucca Mountain in Mr. Reid’s home state of Nevada.

Recently elected Democrats have clamored for changes in Senate rules as Mr. Obama has faced Republican resistance to his nominations.

Two Cabinet-rank choices — Tom Perez as labor secretary and Gina McCarthy to head the Environmental Protection Agency — could be approved by the Senate this month after a loud debate over administration policies.

The GOP also has challenged Mr. Obama’s three judicial nominees to the powerful U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit as they’ve tried to eliminate the vacancies.

Mr. Reid served notice in April that the Democratic majority could change the Senate rules on “any given day” — and that he was willing to do so if necessary.

In the Republican-controlled House, courteous behavior, even within the GOP ranks, has barely been perceptible with the ignominious failure of the farm bill. Some collaboration will be necessary if the House is to move ahead on immigration legislation this month.

Conservatives from safe, gerrymandered House districts have rebuffed appeals from some national Republicans who argue that embracing immigration overhaul will boost the party’s political standing with an increasingly diverse electorate, especially in the 2016 presidential election. The conservatives strongly oppose any legislation offering legalization to immigrants living here illegally.

Reflecting the will of the rank and file, House Speaker John A. Boehner, Ohio Republican, and other HouseGOP lawmakers have said the comprehensive Senate immigration bill that couples the promise of citizenship for those living here unlawfully with increased border security is a nonstarter in the House.

Republicans were assessing the views of their constituents during the weeklong July Fourth break and planned to discuss their next steps at a private meeting Wednesday.

“I think what members need before we proceed on the actual immigration reform is an ironclad guarantee that the border is going to be secure,” Rep. Matt Salmon, Arizona Republican, said just before the recess. He didn’t see any urgency to acting quickly.

“I find it very interesting the argument that we can’t wait till the border is secure, we can’t even do a six-month test to make sure … we have to get them out of the shadows immediately,” Mr. Salmon said. “They’ve been in the shadows for 20 years, and another six months is going to break their backs? I mean, come on, that’s not even a valid argument.”

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