5 top issues face Congress starting this week
January 03, 2011
Democrats control the Senate and the White House while Republicans hold a majority in the House as a result of the Nov. 2 election, leaving the nation's capital haunted by potential for gridlock.
The following are five major issues to keep an eye on in the coming session:
-- Health care reform: After months of wrangling, and final passage with nary a GOP vote in support in 2010, the effort to repeal health care legislation, or at least large swaths of it, is likely to take center stage at some point over the next two years, even though success is doubtful.
The Republican-controlled House might very well pass legislation killing what President Barack Obama characterized as his greatest accomplishment to date. A Senate controlled by Democrats and a president with a veto pen leaves repeal proponents with almost no chance.
Unable to repeal the legislation, lawmakers will almost surely try to bleed health care to death by refusing to provide the funds for implementation, a move that almost certainly will lead to a showdown between the Republican House, the Democratic Senate and the Democratic White House.
-- Spending: A late-in-the-game effort last year by Senate Democrats to pass a 1,924-page omnibus spending bill after failing to adopt any appropriations measures failed in light of late Republican opposition, leading to approval of a continuing resolution that will carry government funding basically at 2011 levels until March 4.
House Republicans are looking to cut $300 billion, according to reports. Obama has said austerity measures are on the horizon, but only after the country emerges from the withering effects of the economic downturn. Senate Democrats are unlikely to go along with many proposed GOP cuts, leading to speculation about a governmental shutdown like the one that slowed things to a halt in 1995.
Complicating matters is the question of the debt ceiling. Sometime during the first quarter of 2011, lawmakers will be asked to raise the amount the federal government can borrow to continue funding programs above the current $14 trillion limit. Some lawmakers, such as GOP Sen.-elect Rand Paul of Kentucky, have hinted they will oppose raising the debt ceiling, a move that would render it nearly impossible for the U.S. to meet its financial obligations.
-- Immigration: Both Democrats and Republicans have discussed immigration reform, although the two parties tend to take a different approach. The lone widely supported immigration measure debated during the 111th Congress was the DREAM Act, sponsored by Sen. Richard Lugar, R-Ind., which offered a path toward citizenship for those who entered the country illegally as youngsters as long as they served in the military or extended their education beyond high school. It failed in face of a Senate Republican filibuster.
The two sides may come together on the issue of E-Verify -- an Internet-based system that could allow employers to determine the eligibility of their employees to work in the U.S. Currently, E-Verify is voluntary and limited to determining the employment eligibility of new hires.
Rep. Lamar Smith, R-Texas, incoming chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, supports expanded E-Verify. There originally was a provision in President Obama's stimulus plan that required any business receiving stimulus funds to use E-Verify. The issue is likely to arise early.
-- Global climate change: The Obama administration's effort to impose a cap-and-trade regimen on carbon producing industries, such as power plants, barely received due consideration in the 111th Congress before it was declared dead and buried.
The legislative snub didn't stop the Environmental Protection Agency from announcing plans to issue new regulations with the aim of reaching a portion of the cap-and-trade bill's objectives.
Republicans maintain the EPA initiative is a job killer and will employ various tactics to reverse course.
-- Tax reform: Obama has yet to issue a detailed proposal, but the president has in recent months called for major tax reform that would simplify the code, close many loopholes and reduce rates without increasing the deficit. A package may be described in greater detail as part of the State of the Union address later this month.
During an interview with National Public Radio in December, Obama said tax reform should be about "simplifying -- eliminating loopholes, eliminating deductions, eliminating exemptions in certain categories."
Those comments don't differ greatly from opinions rendered by House Speaker-designate John Boehner, R-Ohio, who earlier this year called for "a long and hard look at the undergrowth of deductions, credits and special carve-outs that our tax code has become."
Bill Straub is a Washington correspondent for The Evansville Courier in Indiana.
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