WASHINGTON – A Senate famous for its "deliberative pace" is hoping to rush out bills this week bolstering pensions, raising the minimum wage and cutting taxes before departing the Capitol and shifting their re-election campaigns into high gear.
Which of those measures advance this week will determine how much Republicans can boast about as they seek re-election, and to what degree Democrats can portray them as a do-nothing Congress undeserving of continued control.
The House adjourned in the wee hours of Saturday morning for a five-week vacation, passing pension reform and a bill combining a $2.10 hourly raise in the minimum wage over two years with a large cut in inheritance taxes next decade for multimillionaire families.
Most sweeping is a bill that would help preserve the traditional employee-based pension system for the nation's 44 million retirees, tightening controls on companies that fall behind in their contributions and giving special repayment breaks to the airline industry.
After reaching an agreement that took five months to negotiate, the House passed the measure, 279-131, Friday night. Its fate in the Senate is uncertain after Majority Leader Bill Frist, R-Tenn., and House Republicans dropped a crucial sweetener, a plan to extend certain business and middle-class tax breaks.
Those tax breaks are instead now attached to a package raising the $5.25 minimum wage and lowering future inheritance taxes — an election-year gambit in which GOP leaders hope Democrats will allow the latter in order to win the former.
Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., branded the proposal "political blackmail that reeks of desperation."
"It should fail," Reid added, but he said he said he would do everything possible to block the bill. The measure passed the House on Saturday by a vote of 230-180.
Better prospects await a bill to expand oil and gas development in the east-central Gulf of Mexico, opening up 8.3 million acres for drilling. The House has approved a broader measure that also would lift a 25-year federal ban on new drilling along the Atlantic and Pacific coasts.
The proposal is aimed at decreasing natural gas and oil prices.
The Senate also will try to pass a $427 billion spending bill for the Pentagon that combines new funding for the war in Iraq, money to procure a fighter plane beset by cost overruns and a bucketful of pet projects for defense contractors in lawmakers' home states.
The House passed its Pentagon spending bill in June. Leaders in both chambers want to combine them into one measure signed into law before the November election.