WASHINGTON – The House and Senate reconvene Monday after back-to-back political conventions, both parties eager to use the three-week session to show voters why their candidates are the ones to fix the economy and lower energy prices.
The only matter of business that must be accomplished is passing a bill to keep the government running from Oct. 1 through the Nov. 4 election and until Congress returns. Even that might not be easy. Republicans are threatening to block the spending bill if Democrats do not give them a vote on ending a quarter-century freeze on new offshore drilling.
Some lawmakers hold out hopes that an energy bill that has eluded them all year might come together. With 179,000 U.S. troops in Iraq and Afghanistan, Democratic leaders would like to pass a Pentagon spending bill so they can tell voters that the military's basic needs are covered until October 2009.
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi on Friday blamed President Bush and Republicans for the latest dismal unemployment statistics and said Democrats would respond with the second economic aid plan of the year. "With the unemployment rate at a five-year high, it is clear that we must take immediate action to strengthen our economy," said Pelosi, D-Calif.
That theme was repeated in Pennsylvania by Democratic presidential Barack Obama. "We've had eight consecutive months of job loss," he said at a town hall meeting.
But the odds are not good that Congress will act on energy or the economy.
Republicans have made the Democrats' reluctance to open up more offshore areas to oil drilling the major theme in their effort to minimize the anticipated loss of GOP House and Senate seats in November.
Feeling they have Democrats on the defensive, there is not much talk of compromise.
"We'll produce more energy at home," GOP presidential candidate John McCain said during his acceptance speech at the Republican convention Thursday. "We will drill new wells offshore and we'll drill them now."
Republicans and the White House also object to the cost of Democratic proposals for a second economic relief measure, which could include public works investment, disaster aid and heating subsidies to low-income families. Rebates for taxpayers, the centerpiece of the $168 billion plan that Bush signed in February, are less likely this round.
There are glimmers of movement in the Senate on energy.
A group of eight Democrats and eight Republicans is putting together a compromise bill that would allow drilling off the coast of Virginia, the Carolinas and Georgia, and Florida's Gulf coast; invest $20 billion on developing petroleum-free motor vehicles; and extend expiring renewable energy tax credits.
Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., would like to make the measure a new foundation for a debate when the Senate considers the issue, probably in the second week after Congress reconvenes.
In the House, Pelosi has taken whatever means available to prevent Republicans from getting a vote on offshore drilling. That has included shutting down work on spending bills that are supposed to be completed and signed into law by the end of this month. The new budget year begins Oct. 1.
Pelosi says she will introduce a bill in September that would mirror the Senate's drilling compromise, but only as part of a proposal that makes oil companies pay higher taxes and more government royalties, and increases renewable energy and mass transit subsidies.
Republicans were not impressed. "The reality is that this will be a political document," Rep. Thaddeus McCotter, R-Mich.
Lawmakers are under pressure to extend more than $50 billion in tax breaks, including for renewable energy, that either expired at the end of 2007 year or that run out at the end of this year. They also must again fix the alternative minimum tax to prevent millions of mainly upper-middle income earners from being slapped with an additional $2,300 in taxes on average.
Republicans have objected to Democratic proposals to raise taxes on some corporate and investment income to pay for extending the energy, business and education tax breaks as well as the $60 billion AMT fix.
The House and Senate are also trying to work out compromises on bills to fund Amtrak and revamp a federal flood insurance program facing new challenges this hurricane season. They could also vote to replenish the highway trust fund, the source of revenue for federal projects. It is running out of money because of lower gasoline tax revenues this summer.