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Congress returns amid sour mood over slow economy
WASHINGTON -- Still bruised by the summer battle over the debt ceiling, Congress reconvenes this week for what could be an equally painful confrontation over how to put Americans back to work.
Lawmakers returning to Washington after a monthlong recess are in accord on at least one thing: Jobs policy must be at the top of the agenda. But they may not put aside their differences long enough to come up with legislation that makes measurable improvements either to the unemployment rate or Congress' approval rate.
Even the main attraction of the first week back, President Obama's speech to a joint session of Congress outlining his jobs policy, had to be pushed back a day, until Thursday. Republicans balked at letting Obama pre-empt their party's presidential debate on the first day the House is in session.
When Obama does get to the House podium, he's likely to get a cool reception from the GOP side of the aisle. Republicans may go along with tax break proposals but won't be friendly to ideas to extend jobless benefits or spend money on new construction projects.
House Republicans have prepared an autumn jobs agenda that centers on repealing what they say are job-destroying environmental and labor regulations. The first bill, slated for the week of Sept. 12, would prevent the National Labor Relations Board from restricting where an employer can locate in the United States. It grows out of a complaint issued by the NLRB that Boeing Co. was punishing union workers with plans to transfer an assembly line from Washington state to South Carolina.
The anti-regulation bills are likely to hit a dead end in the Democratic-controlled Senate. But the threat of them prompted Obama last week to scrap tougher Environmental Protection Agency regulations on ozone, a key ingredient of smog that causes asthma and other lung illnesses.
While talking jobs, lawmakers will have one eye on the initial meetings of the supercommittee established under legislation enacted in early August to increase the federal debt ceiling. The bipartisan committee has until Nov. 23 to come up with at least $1.2 trillion in deficit cuts. If it fails to do so or if Congress fails to approve its recommendations by Christmas, automatic spending cuts covering both defense and domestic programs would be triggered starting in 2013.
More immediately, Congress must stop itself from actually causing unemployment. Obama, in his address, is expected to urge lawmakers to act swiftly to renew aviation and surface transportation programs and avoid shutdowns that he said could put 1 million jobs at risk.
The Federal Aviation Administration has been operating on short-term extensions since 2007 because the House and Senate can't agree on a comprehensive plan for the future. Earlier this year, the FAA had to shut down for two weeks, resulting in tens of thousands of construction worker layoffs and $400 million in uncollected airline ticket taxes. The agency will shut down again on Sept. 16 unless Congress acts.
Similarly, the law that authorizes federal spending for highway and mass transit programs expires on Sept. 30. A stalemate there could disrupt collection of the 18.4-cent-a-gallon federal gas tax and have a far more devastating effect on construction jobs.
House Transportation Committee chairman John Mica, R-Fla., said at the end of August that he would agree to one more short-term extension, the eighth, as he negotiates with the Senate on a long-term bill. Mica has proposed a six-year, $230 billion bill financed entirely by gasoline and diesel taxes.
The Senate is calling for a two-year, $109 billion bill that would rely on $12 billion appropriated by Congress in addition to the fuel tax revenue.
Not all is negative on the congressional job front.
On its first day back today, the Senate will vote to move forward on the most extensive revamping of the patent system in six decades. Senate passage of the measure, already approved by the House, would send it to Obama, who agrees with most members of Congress that the legislation will make it easier for inventors to get their products to market and thus encourage hiring.
There's also some optimism that Congress will soon sign off on free trade agreements with South Korea, Colombia and Panama that have been in limbo since the George W. Bush administration.
Before the August break, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., and Republican leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky said they had agreed on a path forward for renewing a program that helps workers affected by foreign competition and passing the trade bills, and House Speaker John Boehner also promised a vote on the worker aid bill, which Obama says must be linked to the trade agreements.
The administration and supporters of the trade bills say they will generate tens of thousands of jobs. Some labor unions and other skeptics of free trade dispute that conclusion.
Also looming is the Sept. 30 end of the fiscal year, when Congress is supposed to have completed the 12 appropriation bills to fund federal agencies for the coming fiscal year 2012. So far the House has passed only half of those bills, and the Senate only one, and as in past years they will have to agree on temporary stopgap extensions to avoid a partial government shutdown.
Things are a little easier this year because the debt and budget pact sets the overall total for the 12 bills at $1.043 trillion, a $7 billion cut from current levels. Still, there will be heated debate as Democrats seek to restore cuts planned by Republicans to education, environment, foreign aid and other programs.
One such debate will be over funding the Federal Emergency Management Agency, which has less than $800 million in its disaster fund as it faces the Hurricane Irene recovery operation. Democrats say emergency spending on natural disasters has never required repayment, but Republicans say that in this new age of austerity, disaster aid must be paid for with cuts to other federal spending.