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Summer's over: Congress comes back to a plate full of issues

By Ted Barrett and Deirdre Walsh, CNN Congressional Producers
President Obama will present his jobs plan to Congress on Thursday.
President Obama will present his jobs plan to Congress on Thursday.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • President Obama and House Speaker John Boehner will unveil their jobs plans this month
  • Debt super committee meets to find $1.5 trillion in deficit reduction by Thanksgiving
  • Key issues ahead for Congress: jobs, deficit plan, infrastructure and trade

Washington (CNN) -- Congress returns this week from its summer recess, and its agenda for the rest of the year can be summarized in one word -- jobs.

Lawmakers in both parties are already promoting their own brands of fiscal recovery and job growth as the best way to lift the sagging economy. But the tension and distrust between Democrats and Republicans, built up during the debt ceiling debate over the summer, was evident again in the flap last week over scheduling President Barack Obama's jobs speech to Congress.

This dynamic will make it much more difficult for Congress this fall to pass any significant legislation to bolster the economy, top congressional aides from both parties told CNN.

The sharply political -- and often personal -- differences between Republicans and Democrats are only part of the problem. The real hurdles are the deep philosophical and policy divides about how to shore up the economy, the aides said.

Republicans have already pressed for lower taxes on businesses and fewer federal regulations in order to spur growth and hiring in the private sector. Democrats argue additional government spending on infrastructure projects is the way to stimulate the economy and create jobs.

Reaching a compromise on these important principles -- especially as the presidential campaign and another partisan congressional election cycle heat up -- will be challenging.

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But before the House and Senate can move to their own plans to take up measures to spur job creation, the president will come to Capitol Hill on Thursday night for a high-profile address to lay out his proposals.

Read more on the Obama speech flap

House Speaker John Boehner of Ohio will present the GOP platform to revive the job market a week after the president's address to Congress in a major speech before the Economic Club of Washington.

Republicans continue to say they are ready to find bipartisan solutions, but the latest unemployment figures -- showing zero jobs created in August and the unemployment rate stuck at 9.1% -- only strengthen the GOP resolve to draw the line at any more stimulus spending.

Read more: Has President Obama done a good job on the economy?

House Majority Leader Eric Cantor of Virginia, noting that the president is expected to ask Congress for more investments in infrastructure, previewed the GOP response to ideas Obama is expected to press in his address.

"The administration's previous attempts at this didn't produce the expected results, and we must be mindful not to repeat the mistakes of the past," Cantor said.

'Super committee' gets to work

One glimmer of hope for any sizable accomplishment this fall may rest with the Select Committee on Deficit Reduction -- the so-called "super committee" -- which Congress created as part of the debt ceiling compromise to find $1.5 trillion in deficit reduction by Thanksgiving.

Read more on the debt super committee

If a majority of the panel agrees on the committee's cuts, both chambers need to vote on the package before Christmas. If the evenly divided 12-member bipartisan committee can't reach an agreement, $1.2 trillion in cuts to defense and nondefense accounts starting in 2013 would be triggered.

With an eye on these deadlines, sources indicate both sides are reviewing the work of previous bipartisan commissions to serve as a possible basis for their recommendations.

Democrats and Republicans on the panel have met separately to begin studying options, and the first full super committee session is scheduled for Thursday, the same day as Obama's address to a joint session of Congress.

Republican-led House: Regulatory reform and small business tax cuts

While Boehner may add some new proposals, the bulk of the House Republican jobs agenda was outlined in a memo Cantor circulated to his House GOP colleagues last month. It includes a mix of legislation that would roll back what Cantor calls "job-destroying" regulations and create targeted business tax cuts to free up money for more hiring.

"By pursuing a steady repeal of job-destroying regulations, we can help lift the cloud of uncertainty hanging over small and large employers alike, empowering them to hire more workers," Cantor wrote in the memo.

The House is scheduled to vote to repeal a range of environmental requirements scheduled to go into effect this year, including standards for levels of "coal ash" and greenhouse gases. A vote is also planned to roll back a controversial ruling by the National Labor Relations Board that penalized Boeing for moving a major plant from Washington state to right-to-work state South Carolina.

But even before Congress returned, Obama announced last week he was repealing one of the Environmental Protection Agency regulations the House GOP targeted for elimination -- standards for ozone emissions scheduled to go into effect this fall.

Read more on Obama's decision

Republicans applauded the move, but said it was just a good first step.

Tax bills scheduled for action include one proposal to give small-business owners a 20% tax deduction as an incentive to retain employees and hire new ones.

House Democrats swiftly dismissed the GOP agenda. One missive from the office of the No. 2 House Democrat, Steny Hoyer of Maryland, quipped, "Blocking EPA regulations that do not yet exist is not a jobs plan."

Instead, in addition to more money for road and bridge construction projects, Democrats in the House have pressed for legislation that promotes more American manufacturing jobs through investments in job training and education programs, and encourages companies to make more energy-efficient products.

Senate Democrats: Focus on infrastructure

Senate Democrats hope to wrap up several long-stalled bills they say will create new jobs: three free-trade agreements and an accompanying bill to assist U.S. workers negatively affected by those agreements; a highway construction funding bill; a patent reform bill; and a bill reauthorizing the Federal Aviation Administration.

Each of the bills has been mired in disputes with Republicans, and aides from both parties said they were unsure when or if they would be approved, although temporary extensions of some of the programs are likely.

In addition, Senate Democrats say they will take up about a dozen job-creating bills throughout the fall, including proposals Obama is expected to unveil Thursday.

One likely proposal would establish an "infrastructure jobs bank" to help state and local governments pay for road and bridge construction projects.

"We've said we'd prioritize jobs," a Senate Democratic leadership aide said. "They could be brought up one at a time over the fall. They will be measures that have good bang for the buck in terms of jobs impact and have a history of bipartisanship."

If Republicans don't support the bills -- especially those that have had GOP backing in the past -- Democrats will highlight the impasse for voters so "it's clear who is holding up the recovery," the aide said.

Congress expected to take up trade agreements

The president has repeatedly urged Congress to pass the pending trade agreements with South Korea, Panama, and Colombia, and with Republicans including them as part of their push for jobs, there is some hope that bipartisan support could clear these long-delayed pacts.

Republicans complain that they are eager to move the agreements, but the White House has yet to formally transmit them to Congress. Another sticking point continues to be over how Congress will deal with worker retraining programs -- known as trade adjustment assistance -- that provide financial assistance and programs to help displaced employees. Democrats want to be certain that this piece, which faces stiff GOP opposition in the House, will pass before moving forward with the three agreements.

Another shutdown showdown?

Because little agreement is expected between the House and Senate on a series of spending bills before the fiscal year ends on September 30, Congress will have to reach a deal on an overall spending bill to keep the government funded. Aides say another showdown over a government shutdown is not likely, because in the deal to raise the debt ceiling lawmakers agreed on the total amount of money the government can spend next year.

But while the overall figures for spending are set, there will undoubtedly be another spirited debate like the one this spring over which specific programs will be cut.

In the aftermath of Hurricane Irene and Tropical Storm Lee, Congress is expected to boost funding for the Federal Emergency Management Agency as part of this large spending deal, but GOP leaders continue to insist any new money will need to be offset with cuts elsewhere.

 
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