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A New Congress, a New Debate: Under-the-Radar Issues Could Emerge in 2011

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Shown here are a nuclear plant in Vernon, Vt., left; school children in Oakland, Calif., center; and a Chevron oil rig in the Gulf of Mexico. (AP Photos)

Health care. Stimulus. Deficits. Immigration. Tax cuts. Don't ask, don't tell. Financial regulation. 

Ad nauseum, Americans have heard lawmakers debate these topics -- with and without legislation to accompany them -- for the past two years. But the new class of lawmakers elected Tuesday could bring a fresh set of hot-button issues with them to Washington. 

While debates over stimulus spending and the execution of the health care overhaul will no doubt carry over into the 112th Congress, new members with their own particular interests and constituencies will be poised to drive discussion on the national stage. 

The following are just some of the issues that could move out from under the radar next year: 

Social Security Retirement Age 

While a debate has simmered among advocacy groups for the better part of the year about the sanctity of America's promise to its seniors, the recommendations from the president's debt and deficit commission next month could make Social Security an unavoidable topic for Congress. 

With the entitlement program beginning to run a deficit, raising the retirement age has been tossed around as a possible solution. Democrats so far have vilified Tea Party candidates for so much as suggesting changes to the retirement plan, but candidates like Rand Paul in Kentucky and Marco Rubio in Florida have stood firm that younger workers may have to endure changes to Social Security. 

Offshore Drilling 

The Obama administration went through an agonizing set of shifting positions on the issue of offshore drilling in the wake of the Gulf oil spill back in April. Just as the administration signaled it was going to expand some drilling, the oil spill triggered a deepwater moratorium in the Gulf. 

Ultimately, the administration backed off the ban last month in the face of persistent criticism from Gulf lawmakers and oil industry representatives. 

With this fight in the rearview, emboldened Republicans as well as Democrats from oil-adjacent states could reprise the battle cry of 2008, "Drill, baby, drill." At the vanguard of any such movement, if elected, would be Rubio, the Republican Florida Senate nominee who pushed for more domestic oil production even at the height of the oil spill crisis, or Joe Miller of Alaska, who wants the state to have more control over its natural resources. 

Campaign Finance Law 

With a landmark Supreme Court ruling, longstanding campaign finance restrictions on corporations and unions were rolled back. So far, Democrats have struggled to compensate for the ruling with legislation to require more disclosure for donations. The House passed a Democrat-backed bill over the summer, but Republicans blocked a similar bill in the Senate in September. 

On Monday, the Supreme Court gave President Obama a small victory when it decided not to take up a lower court's ruling that nonprofit groups, known as 527s because of their IRS classification, must comply with federal paperwork requirements in order to remain in compliance under campaign finance law.

With Obama making campaign finance a big issue on the trail, that fight could resume in January, only with Democrats at a bigger disadvantage. Not only could Republican opponents see their numbers swell in Congress, but campaign finance law champion Sen. Russ Feingold, D-Wis., is in real danger of losing his seat Tuesday. 

Ethanol and Biofuels Subsidies 

With energy independence all the rage, lawmakers have a debate on their hands over whether to continue subsidizing ethanol and biodiesel. A tax credit for biodiesel, made mostly from soybeans, expired last year and the Senate has not followed the House's lead in voting to extend it. Ethanol tax credits for refiners and producers are also set to expire at the end of 2010. 

Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack has called on Congress to extend the credits, warning that industry jobs are at stake. Iowa Republican House candidate Brad Zaun, who's in a tough race against Democratic Rep. Leonard Boswell, has seen his fortunes rise and fall over ethanol subsidies, a position opposed by the local Tea Party, but supported by 3rd District farmers.

Corporation for Public Broadcasting Funding 

After Juan Williams was fired from NPR for a remark about Muslims last month, Republicans in Congress vowed to push for new legislation to defund the radio station by going after Corporation for Public Broadcasting, the government-sponsored corporation that hands out funding for public channels. Such efforts failed in the past, but outspoken Republicans like Sen. Jim DeMint, R-S.C., and House Republican Whip Eric Cantor, R-Va., have made it into a pet issue. Cantor says he'll add a proposal to cut funding to his party's "YouCut" program, in which Americans can vote online to cut funding for public projects. He'll like have support from many Tea Party candidates who don't think government needs to be in the broadcast business.

Eminent Domain 

The debate over private property rights has receded back to the local level since a landmark Supreme Court ruling in 2005 empowered governments to use what is known an eminent domain to seize property for the purpose of economic development. 

But eminent domain battles continue to be fought across the country and with several ballot initiatives this year proposing new restrictions on this authority, limited-government minded lawmakers could start to bring this issue back into the national spotlight next year. 

Though Tea Party-backed candidate Christine O'Donnell is struggling in her race for Senate in Delaware, her campaign recently cited the 2005 case as one of the court's most objectionable decisions, saying it allowed governments to "misuse" the Fifth Amendment. 

School Vouchers 

Just as Hollywood helped heat up the global debate over climate change with "An Inconvenient Truth," the latest documentary from the same filmmaker "Waiting for Superman" could help catapult the issue of public school alternatives into the national spotlight. 

Privately managed, publicly funded charter schools are one option, but so are so-called school vouchers, which give government money back to taxpayers to apply toward private education. 

On one side, teachers' unions and other critics say the vouchers undermine a public system in dire need of that money. On the other side, supporters say it gives students fated to attend poorly performing public schools a chance at a better education. 

One Tea Party-backed congressional candidate, David Harmer in California, called for the outright elimination of public education in a 2000 newspaper column. But given the zero percent chance of that happening, he backed an expanded voucher system as the best available option. 

Congressional Pay Freeze/Cut 

Republicans, should they win a majority in at least one chamber, are vowing to use their newfound power to focus on spending cuts -- presumably those symbolic as well as substantive. 

But one idea could come from the Democratic side, where Arizona Rep. Ann Kirkpatrick for the past year has been trying unsuccessfully to garner support for a bill to cut congressional pay by 5 percent. 

Her office estimates the proposal, by requiring most rank-and-file members to cut their $174,000 base pay by $8,700, would save close to $5 million a year. Kirkpatrick is at risk of losing her seat Tuesday, but that's not to say the issue would go away.  

If the new Congress doesn't wish to go so far as to cut pay, it could always try to freeze congressional salaries instead.

Afghanistan Withdrawal 

After announcing 30,000-troop surge for the Afghanistan war, Obama plans to regroup with his advisers for a strategy review this December. 

On the line could be his stated plan for a troop withdrawal beginning in July 2011. Obama and his military commanders have described this deadline as conditions-based, opening the door to a fierce debate in Congress over whether those conditions will have been met. 

The debate may not divide along the traditional partisan lines. Though hawkish Republican senators have pressed for a more flexible timetable, some Tea Party-favored candidates have voiced frustration with the war effort and could give the out-of-Afghanistan Democrats unlikely allies. 

Nuclear Power 

Despite the bipartisan talk about the need for clean, safe nuclear power, the United States has not approved a new plant since the Three-Mile Island meltdown in 1979. 

Getting a new plant online is costly and making it profitable takes time. Safety concerns add another element of chaos into planning. 

But with countries like China making nuclear power gains, Obama earlier this year announced loan guarantees for new plant construction. The country is pushing for more domestic energy production as an economic and security imperative, and a new Congress could be in a position to revisit the nuclear option. Tea Party-backed candidate Ken Buck in Colorado is among those talking favorably about advancing America's nuclear energy capability. 

Gay Marriage Amendment 

With more states recognizing gay marriage as well as civil unions, a culture clash could be on the horizon. The 2010 campaign has mostly veered away from social issues as candidates clash over the economy and fiscal restraint, but don't discount the possibility of a pushback against gay marriage rights as the tide moves in the opposition direction. 

Obama, who has opposed gay marriage, suggested in an interview last week that his stance on the matter could be open to revision. 

"I have been to this point unwilling to sign on to same-sex marriage primarily because of my understandings of the traditional definitions of marriage," Obama told a group of bloggers. "But I also think you're right that attitudes evolve, including mine. ... The one thing I will say today is I think it's pretty clear where the trend lines are going." 

So far, attempts to prohibit gay marriage via a constitutional amendment have failed. 

Whistleblower Protections 

The massive war document dumps by WikiLeaks have turned "whistleblower" into a dirty word. 

Sen. Charles Schumer, D-N.Y., announced over the summer that he would leave the Julian Assange-fronted group out of a proposed media shield bill to protect journalists from court attempts to compel them to reveal their sources. That bill awaits a vote in the Senate, but it remains to be seen what other avenues members of Congress will use to prevent groups like WikiLeaks from outing sensitive security information and punish them when they do. 

Rep. Mike Rogers, R-Mich., suggested in August that the death penalty be considered. Schumer took the middle ground with his whistleblower exemption. 

Arms Reduction Treaty 

A new treaty between the United States and Russia to reduce the number of warheads on both sides of the Atlantic still awaits ratification in the Senate. 

While the treaty cleared a committee vote in early October, conservative senators continue to fight it. The treaty, which requires 67 votes, could come up during the lame-duck session.

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