- The Washington Times - Wednesday, November 18, 2009

President Obama’s to-do list is getting longer, not shorter, as key priorities slip into the future and are joined by new pressing concerns over jobs and the ballooning deficit.

This week, Senate Democrats announced that they’ve bumped action on climate change into next year, and House Democrats won’t take up a rewrite of financial regulations until next month at the earliest. Meanwhile, the Obama administration has signaled a desire to act to boost jobs and to try to reduce the deficit - the two issues that voters say matter as the economy continues to struggle.

The most attention now is on the health care bill, which both sides are watching as a key indicator of how the rest of the agenda will go.

Sen. Bob Casey, Pennsylvania Democrat, said the Senate needs to act by the end of this year on health care reform.

“If you don’t get a bill through the Senate in 2009, you break the momentum that’s been building for many, many months,” he said. “I think it’s imperative we do that.”

Even that scenario could be difficult as multiple deadlines - some imposed by Mr. Obama and others by Capitol Hill Democrats - have come and gone.

“I don’t underestimate the amount of work we have to do in a short amount of time,” Mr. Casey said. “I think we can do it.”

Meanwhile, lawmakers are racing other deadlines.

Sen. Maria Cantwell, Washington Democrat, said climate change legislation needs to be completed by April or “it will be pretty hard to do it after that.” The House has a bill, including a cap on carbon emissions, but senators said Tuesday that they won’t address the legislation until next year.

After passing a $787 billion stimulus bill in February, Democrats are now talking about new legislation to spur jobs, in light of an unemployment rate that has soared past 10 percent.

Mr. Obama said he’ll hold a jobs summit next month to spur action, while congressional Democrats have set an end-of-year timeline for passing another jobs-producing bill, said House Majority Leader Steny H. Hoyer, Maryland Democrat.

He said it was too early to estimate how much money that would cost, but rising deficits may not allow much budget room to maneuver.

One jobs option, Senate Democrats said, would be to roll over the climate change and energy issues into the jobs debate and pass a bill that would boost jobs through renewable-energy programs.

Republicans said the growing to-do list can be whittled down easily if Congress would focus on what matters most to voters.

“I do think the president has not yet learned to prioritize and hopefully over the course of his four years he will,” said Sen. Bob Corker, Tennessee Republican. “But I think focusing on the most important issues first would serve him well. And I think people in this country have said loud and clear health care reform is not of highest priority, cap and trade is not of highest priority.”

Senate Republican Conference Chairman John Thune said that Democrats’ progress depends in part on the success of Mr. Obama’s health care bill.

“It was a very bold, ambitious agenda but he’s used up an awful lot of political capital on the health care issue,” said Mr. Thune, South Dakota Republican.

“I think it’s cost him and I think because he didn’t step up and provide the leadership, really letting Congress write a lot of these bills it’s moved in a direction that’s it going to be a lot more difficult to get the American people behind it.”

He said he expects Democrats to turn to financial regulation next because it’s an area on which they likely can find some bipartisan agreement. But Mr. Thune said beyond that, the prospects for issues such as immigration reform and climate change are murky.

“I don’t know how they get to cap and trade. I think they might try and do an energy bill that doesn’t include cap and trade. I don’t think they don’t want at least Democrat senators having to make the vote on cap and trade at least going into an election year.”

Democrats insist that health care reform will pass, though that end-of-year deadline Mr. Obama had wanted appears to be out of reach. Instead, the Senate could pass its bill this year and then House and Senate negotiators would work on a final agreement early next year.

Majority Leader Harry Reid, Nevada Democrat, has indicated that he wants to hold the first procedural vote to begin debate before the Senate leaves for Thanksgiving recess, but on Tuesday would say only that the vote would be held “soon.”

He said he is waiting on the Congressional Budget Office to return analysis of his legislation. Mr. Reid said the Senate could meet on Saturday to hold one of the votes.

“We’re going to be hearing from CBO very soon,” he told reporters Tuesday. “Everything is moving along just fine. As soon as we get the bill, we’ll share it with everyone.”

c Jennifer Haberkorn and Stephen Dinan contributed to this report.

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