Washington — Congress returns from a two-week recess Monday facing a landscape still scorched from the health care battle, partisan gridlock seemingly worse than ever, and a pitched battle ahead over the Supreme Court.
But despite the unfavorable signs, President Barack Obama and his fellow Democrats still have unexpected opportunities to enact major policy changes — maybe even with at least a modicum of Republican support.
In the months just ahead, the legislative agenda is laden with popular issues that — unlike health care — are hard to define in strictly partisan terms: legislation to extend unemployment benefits; a landmark bill to crack down on Wall Street excesses; additional efforts to bolster the still-anemic economic recovery; and possible ratification of a historic nuclear arms treaty.
That opens the prospect of the 111th Congress continuing to build its legislative legacy even as its members draw closer to a bitter midterm election and join battle over Obama’s choice to replace retiring Justice John Paul Stevens.
Indeed, Democrats’ bill to create a new oversight and regulatory system for the nation’s financial system — which party leaders hope will clear the Senate before the court fight reaches the floor — could be as historic in its own way as was the health care law.
While the emerging legislation does not go as far as many want to rein in Wall Street, experts say that even a more moderate version is likely to go farther than any bill since the Great Depression in giving federal regulators power to prevent another financial crisis, avoid future bailouts and tackle the problem of institutions deemed “too big to fail.”
“It is hard to think of anything of this magnitude since 1933-34,” said David Moss, a professor at the Harvard School of Business. “This kind of oversight is essential. These very large institutions are like nuclear power plants: They deliver an important public service, but they are potentially very dangerous.”
A measure to create more government regulation of business might sound like something Republicans would oppose. But the bill’s prospects are bolstered by the fact that many Republicans are as eager as Democrats to respond to the public’s angry view that Wall Street was responsible for the economy’s ills.
Stevens’ retirement puts pressure on the Senate to speed up action on top priority bills before the court debate opens on the floor, likely this summer. The time crunch could doom already slim prospects for broad legislation to combat global warming and for immigration law, which would consume vast amounts of time even if a bipartisan agreement could be reached.
“Nothing’s coming easy in the Senate these days, so add this (court nomination) to the list of things we’re going to have to deal with,” said Jim Manley, spokesman for Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev.
But even Republican aides concede that the financial regulation bill is far enough along — it has already passed the House and is expected to come to the Senate floor within the next month — that it will not be squeezed out by the court debate.
Before the Senate takes up financial regulation, Democratic leaders — who no longer have a filibuster-proof majority — will try to break an impasse over legislation to extend unemployment benefits that stalled on the eve of Congress’ spring recess.
Republicans blocked the bill then, arguing that the $9 billion cost of the one-month extension of benefits — which lapsed for some 212,000 people after March 31 — should be offset by other spending cuts to avoid raising the deficit.
Democrats will try to move the bill again on Monday.