Forecast calls for politics and a side of bluster on Defense bill

Anyone squeamish about politicizing national security should steer clear of the Senate this week.

The chamber is braced for votes this week on a series of politically fraught issues with limited ties to an underlying defense authorization bill, but which could energize voters in the midterm elections.

Maneuvering over how and when to renew the Bush-era tax cuts due to expire Jan. 1 is sure to be another undercurrent in both chambers for the week.

And House and Senate Democratic congressional leaders will also seek to refocus voter attention this week on the nation's new healthcare law -- with Thursday marking its six-month anniversary since enactment.

Those efforts are anticipated to be as much celebratory, as explanatory.

"We'll be talking about issues ...that we're very proud of in the healthcare bill," House Speaker Rep. Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., promised last week.

But events in the Senate chamber are expected to command the most attention. House members won't even be convening until Wednesday, and leadership aides there don't anticipate much significant floor action.

Big ticket issues

Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., said last week the Senate will vote on amending the defense bill to add a measure that provides illegal immigrants who entered the country as children a path to citizenship. He said the chamber would also vote on whether to remove from the bill language effectively repealing the Pentagon's "don't ask, don't tell" policy that bans openly gay individuals from the military.

Reid has told backers of a bill to repeal secret holds that their proposal will receive a vote during the defense debate, aides and senators said.

Before those votes can occur, the chamber will hold a cloture vote Tuesday afternoon on a motion to proceed to the defense bill, with Democrats set to denounce GOP "no" votes as an attempt to filibuster the legislation.

Reid's office on Thursday worked to exploit reports that Senate Armed Services Committee ranking member John McCain, R-Ariz., was "blocking" the bill, though substantial opposition to it from other Republicans meant Reid would have had to file cloture on it regardless of McCain's position.

Democrats expect to prevail on the procedural vote with support from Republicans like Sens. Susan Collins and Olympia Snowe of Maine.

Reid said he does not expect to complete action on the bill until the lame-duck sessions after the midterm election. A Republican aide called that an indication Democrats are more interested in using the bill to appeal to key constituent groups than in passing it.

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., said Democrats are using the bill to meet "campaign promises ahead of the upcoming election," and "manufacture controversy."

"Don't ask, don't tell" and the citizenship issues might appeal to blocs of liberal and Hispanic voters in California, where Democratic Sen. Barbara Boxer faces a tight re-election fight against former Hewlett-Packard chief Carly Fiorina. Reid himself needs votes from Nevada's large Hispanic population to overcome a challenge by Sharron Angle, a former state legislator.

Secret holds are less of a campaign issue, but McCain attacked a vote on the issue as extraneous and inappropriate on a defense bill.

Before October, the Senate, which has not passed any of the annual appropriations bills this year, will also take up a continuing resolution to keep the government operating next year at fiscal 2009 levels.

Some senators are also pushing Reid to bring up a bill to tighten taxation of companies that shift jobs overseas, a populist measure that is on tap in the House.

Early dismissal?

But time is short. While a Reid spokeswoman said the chamber remains scheduled to stay in session through Oct. 8, senators are pressing Reid to dismiss the Senate a week earlier, when the House is expected to head home. Leadership aides privately expect Reid ultimately to curtail the session to three weeks due to campaign needs.

Pelosi last week promised swift action on passage of the small-business lending bill, approved last week by the Senate. Although she described the House version passed in June as containing some "better ideas," she said "some of those issues we'll have to deal with in future legislation."

House Majority Leader Rep. Steny Hoyer, D-Md., said Friday that the bill will be on the floor this week.

House leadership aides also said two more "Make it in America" bills" -- part of a series of bills to help boost manufacturing and spark job creation -- will be placed on the suspension calendar.

There also remains possible action on a NASA reauthorization bill, though the House and Senate are still talking over differences. There had been a possibility of action this week on a continuing resolution, which needs to be passed by the end of the month to keep government running beyond Sept. 30. But with the shortened week, that now seems unlikely.

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