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Capitol crunch time

Congress has some work to do before adjourning for November midterm elections.

September 15, 2010

Please take your seats and settle down, class of 2010. We know you've had a fun summer recess, but it's time to sharpen your pencils and get back to work. This month's assignment: extending tax cuts for the middle class, passing an energy bill and improving food safety regulation. For extra credit, we've got a roster of other bills that need passing too.

The Capitol is humming as Congress returns from its August break for a few frenzied weeks of activity before adjourning again for the November elections. Few observers are expecting much as the clock runs out on the current session. Nonetheless, there are some bills Congress must pass.

At the top of the list is an extension of some of the tax cuts approved under President Bush. If Congress fails to act, they will expire at the end of the year, which would kick the crutches out from under our slowly recovering economy and generate public fury at both parties as Democrats and Republicans squabble over which cuts to keep and which to discard. President Obama's proposal to let the cuts expire for couples making more than $250,000 a year is likely to inflict some pain (see editorial below), but it's the only sensible alternative. Extending tax breaks for the wealthy, as GOP leaders propose, would widen the budget deficit by $700 billion over the course of a decade.

It may be too much to hope for the Senate to approve an energy bill patterned on the one passed in the House, which would impose a cap-and-trade system to fight climate change and contains many other groundbreaking clean-energy provisions. But even the Senate's obstructionist Republican wing should be able to agree on a bill tightening regulation of offshore drilling and imposing a national standard for renewable power, both of which are popular with the public and many business groups.

Besides the Gulf of Mexico oil spill, another national crisis that the Senate has failed to address is the recent salmonella outbreak. Once again, the House passed a common-sense bill giving regulators more power to prevent and respond to such public health threats from agricultural facilities, but the Senate version has stalled.

Here are some other key bills, most of them passed by the House but not the Senate, that deserve to go to Obama's desk:

•The DISCLOSE Act which requires corporations and unions to disclose their funding of political campaigns.

HR 5297 which would provide $30 billion for loans to small businesses and expand some business tax breaks.

•The federal shield law, HR 985, which would help protect journalists who rely on confidential sources.

•The Employee Non-Discrimination Act, S 1584 , which would end job discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation or identity.

•A defense spending bill containing an amendment that would end the military's discriminatory "don't ask, don't tell" policy, which was recently ruled unconstitutional by a federal judge.

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