WASHINGTON – If you pay attention to election 2012 at all this summer, make it this week.
Decisions out of Washington are sure to have an impact on the major issues driving the presidential and congressional elections: Jobs. How much is in your wallet. Health insurance, immigration, campaign finance and more.
Lawmakers face deadlines on legislation determining the interest rate students pay for loans, overhaul of the federal transportation program, and money for the system that provides insurance for homes and businesses in flood-risk areas. The Supreme Court, meanwhile, is rendering judgment Thursday on the health care overhaul law, President Barack Obama's signature legislative achievement.
"I saw some story about (how) this is the week that could make or break Barack Obama. I don't buy it," said Sen. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, chairman of the Senate Health committee, who personally invested considerable time into passage of the health care law. "It's an important week, sure."
In opinion polls, voters put the economy at the top of their list of concerns along with unemployment, which stands at 8.2 percent. They worry about federal spending at a time of record-breaking deficits, how to pay for their health care, and immigration policy. And in interview after interview, respondents say they are extremely concerned about their personal finances.
These are the substantive issues the presidential and congressional candidates are certain to focus on in the fall as they battle for the presidency, congressional majorities and the loyalties of persuadable voters. There are plenty of those — a quarter of registered voters have yet to commit to Obama or Republican challenger Mitt Romney, according to an Associated Press-GfK poll this month. The ranks of the undecided will shrink before Election Day, but this group could make the difference in a close presidential race and in congressional contests.
Republicans need a net four seats to seize control of the Senate from the Democrats. In the House, Democrats need a net of 25 seats to oust the GOP majority.
The action in Washington also affects key constituencies both parties are trying to woo, including Hispanics, women, seniors and small businesses.
In the near term, lawmakers want to complete the outstanding legislation and avoid having to explain to constituents over the weeklong July 4th break why Congress failed to protect jobs in the transportation industry, students with loans and homes threatened by flooding.
"We have lots to do and a very short time to do it," Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., said Monday from the Senate floor.
By June 30, the House and Senate must pass a highway spending bill — or extend current law — that negotiators say would save or create more than 2 million jobs. Other congressional bargainers are working fast to head off a July 1 doubling of interest rates on federal loans to 7.4 million college students. The government's flood insurance program expires at the end of July if not renewed, and a Senate vote is expected this week.
Across the street, the Supreme Court handed down a mixed decision on immigration Monday, tossing out major parts of Arizona's tough crackdown on illegal immigrations while unanimously approving the requirement that police check the immigration status of those they stop for other reasons. The court also upheld unlimited corporate spending on political campaigns.
Though the economy remains the No. 1 worry for voters, the health care ruling could have the biggest near-term political impact. Both parties have big strategic guns at the ready.
If the Supreme Court upholds the Obama health care law, it would mean validation for the president and the Democrats in Congress who muscled the legislation to passage in 2010, when they controlled both houses of Congress. But the overhaul mobilized small-government advocates and was a big force behind the GOP takeover of the House that year. So if the law is upheld, Republicans have a clear case to make for strengthening their numbers and their power to overturn all or parts of it.
But if the court strikes any part down, the defeat for Obama could mean uncertainty for both parties.
Congressional Republicans intend to seek quick repeal of any parts of the health care law that survive the court's ruling, but they don't plan to push replacement measures until after the November elections. Obama and congressional Democrats haven't said what they would do in the event the court rejects the law.
"We remain confident that the Affordable Care Act is constitutional and we are ready for whatever decision is rendered by the Supreme Court," White House press secretary Jay Carney said.
The high court's decision to throw out key provisions of Arizona's crackdown on illegal immigrants guarantees that the issue has a high profile in the elections as Obama tries to protect his party's substantial lead among Hispanics, and Republicans seek to narrow the polling advantage.
Democrats howled that the Arizona immigration law decision clears the way for racial profiling, while Republicans said the decision upholds states' rights to enforce their own immigration policies. Both sides insisted that Congress needs to pass a long-term immigration policy that applies to the estimated 11 million people in the country illegally, an issue that has divided lawmakers for years.
"No American should ever live under a cloud of suspicion just because of what they look like," said Obama, who won two-thirds of the Latino vote in 2008 and recently issued a directive that protects young immigrants who came illegally to the United States as children. Obama pledged in 2008 to push for passage of comprehensive changes in immigration laws, but the effort stalled in Congress and Obama turned his attention to addressing the economy and pressed ahead with passing an overhaul of health care laws.
Romney, campaigning in Arizona on Monday, blamed Obama for lack of action on immigration. He also said states have the right to secure their borders, "particularly when the federal government has failed to meet its responsibilities."
Within a few hours of the court's ruling on immigration, Republican Rep. John Mica, who's in a tough GOP primary race in Florida against Rep. Sandy Adams, asked his constituents in a letter to "stand with me for Arizona's state rights."
"P.S.," Mica added. "Will you consider making a contribution to my campaign today?"