WASHINGTON — So far this year, Congress has done what it does best — spend a lot of money and make a lot of promises.
Now, as lawmakers return from a two-week spring break, comes the hard part, the crafting of legislation that will change how banks are regulated, health care is delivered and the nation consumes energy.
Over the next five weeks, leading up to the Memorial Day break, much of the action will come not in the full House or Senate, but in committee rooms.
Over the first months of this session, the first in 14 years with Democrats controlling the White House and both chambers of Congress, Democrats gave President Barack Obama a $787 billion economic stimulus package and a $410 billion spending bill for this budget year. The House and Senate approved slightly different versions of a $3.6 trillion spending outline for the next budget year, which begins Oct. 1.
In the weeks ahead, lawmakers must reach a compromise on that budget plan and take up a separate big-money item: a White House request for $83 billion to finance military and diplomatic operations in Iraq and Afghanistan through the fall. Congress probably will give Obama the money, but with grumbling from antiwar Democrats seeking a quicker reduction of the U.S. military presence in Iraq.
The Senate's legislative calendar, never predictable because of the minority's powers to delay bills, could be slowed by GOP opposition to several Obama administration nominees. But here are some things to watch for.
Monday: The recession will be front and center when the Senate tackles legislation that would strengthen the ability of the Justice Department and FBI to fight those who are taking advantage of the mortgage crisis to defraud homeowners.
Tuesday: The Senate Finance Committee holds the first of several public discussions on the seminal issue of this congressional session, overhauling the health care system. The House Energy Committee is expected to vote soon on climate change legislation that could include a cap-and-trade system for carbon emissions. Obama's nominee to be health secretary, Democratic Gov. Kathleen Sebelius of Kansas, faces a committee vote on whether to send her nomination to the full Senate.
THIS WEEK: A showdown could come over Christopher Hill, Obama's choice to be ambassador to Iraq. Sen. Sam Brownback, R-Kan., was critical of Hill's performance when the diplomat was the Bush administration's top negotiator with North Korea, and has pledged to slow down the process leading up to a vote on the nomination. A first procedural vote is set for Monday.
EARLY MAY: The House Financial Services Committee could vote on far-reaching new rules aimed at averting a repeat of the financial meltdown, according to the chairman, Rep. Barney Frank, D-Mass.
As summer nears: Military spending will come into the spotlight as Congress turns to the Pentagon budget, which includes Defense Secretary Robert Gates' proposals to scale back or eliminate some high-cost weapons programs affecting jobs in hundreds of congressional districts.
SOON: The Senate could act on a bill backed by Obama that would let cash-strapped homeowners seek mortgage relief through bankruptcy. The Senate must first resolve differences with the House, which voted to let bankruptcy judges lower a homeowner's interest rate and principal. The banking industry opposes this idea. In another gesture to consumers, the House and Senate could take up a credit card bill of rights bill. The aim is to limit the ability of credit card companies to raise interest rates on existing balances.