Congress returns from the July Fourth holiday this week, but the fireworks on Capitol Hill are just getting started, with debates heating up over President Obama’s health care plan and his pick for the Supreme Court.
Democratic leaders have five weeks to advance the president’s health care agenda, which is proving divisive among Democrats and encountering stiff resistance from Republicans, as well as pass annual appropriations bills before the August recess.
In both chambers, top Democrats called on Republicans to help pass the ambitious agenda.
Republicans remained critical of massive federal debt piled up by the Obama White House and opposed to what they characterize as Democrats’ plans for a government-run health care system.
“I think there is a genuine alarm,” said Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, Kentucky Republican. “Americans see the government now running banks, insurance companies, automobile companies … and now they fear the government wants to take over health care as well.”
The health care debate will compete for center stage in the Senate with confirmation hearings on Supreme Court nominee Judge Sonia Sotomayor. The hearings are scheduled to begin July 13 and likely will be followed by extensive floor debate.
The confirmation of Judge Sotomayor is all but assured, though Republicans are expected to raise objections.
The addition to the chamber of Democratic Senator-elect Al Franken of Minnesota, who will be sworn in Tuesday, gives Democrats a 60-vote supermajority that could bust Republican filibusters and ram bills through the chamber.
However, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, Nevada Democrat, said he will not use the supermajority to “run roughshod” over Republicans. He promised the minority would have a seat at the negotiating table and invited them to help tackle the crowded agenda.
“It’s up to them to decide whether they’ll continue to sit down and be the ‘party of no’ or sit down and work for the common good of the people,” Mr. Reid told reporters at the Capitol. “It’s up to them. I would hope that the party of no is coming to an end.”
On the other side of the Capitol, House Democrats plan to pass health care legislation, complete eight of the 12 annual spending bills that will fund the government in the fiscal year beginning Oct. 1 and pass legislation mandating “pay-as-you-go” budget rules.
“Democrats are committed to getting our work done before the August district work period, and we hope Republicans work with us so that we can take action on these important issues like the American people expect and deserve,” said Katie Grant, spokeswoman for House Majority Leader Steny H. Hoyer, Maryland Democrat.
Mr. Obama said he wants a health care bill on his desk by August, but Democratic leaders say a final bill probably will not be approved until October.
House Democrats are more optimistic than their Senate colleagues about passing a bill before leaving town Aug. 8. Once both versions are passed, the two bills still will need to be reconciled — most likely in September at the earliest — before the final package is sent to the president’s desk.
Progress in both chambers is being slowed by friction over the public option, whether employers should be required to provide coverage for employees and who should be taxed to pay for the plan. Republicans say the public option is a deal breaker, but Democrats say its essential for real reform.
Proposals for a government-run insurance plan also threaten to scare off moderate Democrats, especially the large number of newly elected Democrats from largely Republican districts.
Advocacy groups have hit the airwaves in the home states of moderate Democrats to shore up support for a public option.