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Health care dominates as Congress returns

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Debate over a national health care overhaul dominates the agenda as Congress returns from a summer break. Lawmakers also will work on other pressing issues, including energy policy and new rules for the financial industry.

The focus on health care as Congress reconvenes Tuesday after its monthlong recess is nearly all-consuming. President Barack Obama, in what could be one of his most important speeches, addresses lawmakers Wednesday to make his case for passing health care legislation this year.

At stake, beyond the future of health care, is an accomplishment Democrats need to convince voters they deserve to remain in power.

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., presents an aggressive to-do list: “Delivering on health insurance reform and clean energy, providing jobs by improving our infrastructure, and reining in the behavior on Wall Street that contributed to the economic downturn.”

Financial legislation is also on the table. The House Financial Services Committee is expected to consider a bill this month on Obama’s proposals to protect consumers from financial industry excesses. The Senate is likely to follow later in the year.

The death of Sen. Edward Kennedy, D-Mass., has added a twist. Sen. Chris Dodd, D-Conn., now chairman of the banking committee, could become chairman of the Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee, formerly headed by Kennedy.

That would give Dodd a chance at a high-profile victory as he heads into a tough 2010 re-election campaign. It could also result in leadership of the banking committee, and the financial overhaul effort, going to Sen. Tim Johnson, a moderate Democrat from South Dakota, a center for the credit card industry.

Obama wants to create a government agency to protect consumers from abuses in such areas as credit cards and mortgages. Johnson voted against credit card protection legislation pushed through by Dodd earlier this year, saying it could limit access to credit and jeopardize thousands of jobs in his home state.

And then there’s the issue of clean energy. The House in June narrowly passed a bill based on a “cap-and-trade” system in which companies would get pollution allowances that they could sell if they went below emissions limits, or buy if they could not meet the requirements.

But prospects are uncertain in the Senate, where Republicans and coal-state Democrats oppose it. The leading Senate proponents, Democrats Barbara Boxer of California and John Kerry of Massachusetts, plan to delay introducing their bill until late September. They cited Kennedy’s death, Kerry’s August hip surgery and the Finance Committee’s focus on health care.

Meanwhile, the Senate will spend much of its floor time on annual spending bills that are supposed to be passed before Oct. 1, the start of the new fiscal year. The House has passed all 12 bills that provide the $1.2 trillion to operate federal agencies in the coming year — that’s the “discretionary” part of the $3.6 trillion federal budget.

But the Senate has acted on only four, and the House and Senate have yet to reach common ground on any. That means Congress, as has become the custom in recent years, will have to approve a resolution to keep the government running after this budget year ends Sept. 30.

Other chores for Congress include:

_ Raising the current debt limit of $12.1 trillion, which the Treasury Department says is close to being exceeded.

_ Looking at the estate tax. Under a 2001 tax cut law, the current tax rate of 45 percent for assets above $3.5 million will expire in 2010 if Congress doesn’t act. In 2011, the old exclusion of $1 million returns, and the top rate for holdings above that amount would jump back to 55 percent, where it was in 2001.

_ Legislation boosting Pell Grants for low-income college students.

Congress could also turn to food safety, swine flu or troop strength in Afghanistan.

Democrats point to major accomplishments in the first eight months of this year, including the $787 billion stimulus package; a law to curb smoking, particularly among teens; expanding subsidized child health care; measures to protect women workers; and the “cash for clunkers” program.

Other Democratic priorities, such as legislation making it easier for unions to organize and an overhaul of immigration laws, will probably have to wait until next year.

© 2009 Associated Press. Displayed by permission. All rights reserved.

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