President Obama discusses student loan rates with high school seniors… (Saul Loeb, AFP\Getty Images )
WASHINGTON — As lawmakers return to the Capitol this week, Congress will launch into a summer of political gamesmanship that will turn floor fights into proxy battles for the presidential campaign.
The votes will do little to resolve crucial issues facing the country. But they will establish themes that help define President Obama and his Republican challenger, Mitt Romney, in the minds of voters.
Democrats will seek to portray Republicans as protecting the wealthy at the expense of the middle class. Republicans will use the sluggish economy and Obama's healthcare law as prime examples of big government failures.
Lawmakers of both parties will decry the "do-nothingness" that has sent congressional approval ratings into a free fall, but both probably will contribute to it.
The fight over student loan interest rates, which will resume Tuesday with a vote in the Senate, is the first skirmish: Senate Democrats will highlight Obama's plan to extend the lower rate by paying for it with a new tax on wealthier Americans. Republicans will counter with a proposal to divert money from a fund that is part of the president's healthcare law.
Both Obama and Romney want to keep rates low, but the possibility that the parties theoretically could find agreement might go unnoticed to a casual observer.
Quiet compromise is neither party's priority. The White House and its allies in Congress see the student loan issue as an opportunity to replay the strategy they used during the payroll tax fight — a battle the president's advisors believe he won.
Even as the student loan issue heats up, the White House appears to be laying the groundwork for its next legislative push. On Tuesday, Obama is expected to announce a fresh set of initiatives aimed at job growth — things Congress "should and must do," as spokesman Jay Carney put it.
Democrats think they can portray Republicans as obstructionists who have shown Americans they are beholden to a conservative tea party agenda.
"When Congress was forced into a corner — or, rather, House Republicans were forced into a corner — they acted, eventually, to ensure that the payroll tax cut was extended," Carney said last week. "We expect them to put ideology aside and to act appropriately to ensure that interest rates on student loans do not double on July 1."
Without an agreement, rates on new Stafford student loans for 7 million undergraduates would rise from 3.4% to 6.8% under a law passed by the Democratic Congress in 2007 and signed byPresident George W. Bush.
Although House SpeakerJohn A. Boehner(R-Ohio) has insisted the battle over the student loan rate is a "fake fight," he led the effort to pass a bill that would keep rates low for another year but pay for it in a way that is anathema to Democrats. The House bill would gut a public health and preventive care fund that is part of Obama's new healthcare law.
For Republicans, though, the Democratic alternative is nothing short of a tax hike on the "job creators" needed to get Americans back to work. Senate Democrats have proposed raising taxes on wealthier households by closing a loophole for certain taxpayers to cover the costs of keeping rates low.
"While the president and congressional Democrats continue to try and manufacture fake political fights, Republicans will stay focused on helping struggling families and small businesses with common-sense policies," Boehner spokesman Kevin Smith said Monday.
The legislative branch is often at an impasse, especially in highly partisan times. But in this presidential election year, Congress has become an alternative venue for the campaign trail.
Along with the student loan battle, other issues this summer will follow a similar script: Stake out polarizing positions, fight, repeat.
Showdowns are looming on a number of fronts.
Congress must decide before May 15 how to deal with theU.S. Postal Service's budget crisis. Democrats in the Senate approved a plan, with some GOP support, that would preserve Saturday delivery. House Republicans would allow it to be cut, saying the post office must be put on a better financial course.
Differences over how to revamp a domestic violence prevention law have led Democrats to accuse Republicans of engaging in a "war on women." Democrats want to expand the law to explicitly cover gay victims of domestic violence and sexual abuse. Republicans want to bolster criminal penalties; if Democrats oppose that, they can be accused of being soft on crime.
As summer comes to a close, Congress will be faced with setting aside broad philosophical differences over the size of the federal government to set funding levels for the start of the new fiscal year, on Oct. 1. Republicans are demanding steep cuts to domestic programs, raising objections from Democrats.
And the big-ticket items — expiration of the George W. Bush-era tax breaks and deep spending cuts, both coming by year's end if nothing is done — continue to vex lawmakers from both parties.
The approach holds risks for lawmakers, who have watched their approval ratings plummet.
But party strategists also believe that the fights in Congress will help shape a national debate as voters decide which party should control the White House — and the House and Senate.
Americans may think Congress does nothing, but Capitol Hill politicians have found something it does well: shadow-box over issues that will dominate the campaign.