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Franken sworn in (AP/Photo by Manuel Balce Ceneta)

Blast off

Congress | Senators, including one new one, return from the Fourth of July break ready to ignite their own legislative fireworks

WASHINGTON-With Independence Day festivities over, the U.S. Senate returned to Capitol Hill this week to blast off some of its own legislative fireworks and kick off the last few weeks before its long August recess. On Tuesday senators sparred on health care, a Supreme Court confirmation, an energy bill, and the stimulus bill-and still managed to find the time to swear in a new colleague.

"Welcome back to town," said Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell with a smile at an afternoon press conference.

Vice President Joe Biden helped light up the Senate floor by adding his presence to the Capitol Hill busyness while administering the oath of office to new Sen. Al Franken, D-Minn. In between committee meetings and policy lunches, senators hurried back to the floor to shake hands with Franken.

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Democrats continued to step up the pressure for their summer agenda of health care reform and the Supreme Court justice confirmation, adding an energy bill to the mix. Majority Leader Harry Reid said in a Tuesday afternoon press conference following the respective parties' weekly policy lunches that he is already moving forward on a climate bill. He has scheduled meetings with committee leaders this week and projected a vote on the bill by mid-September.

Reid acknowledged the importance of the upcoming hearings for Supreme Court nominee Sonia Sotomayor and said that would take priority over all other tasks. However, Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, said Sotomayor would be asked tough questions.

In the continuing health committee hearings, Democrats brought more thunder in support of their health care reform overhaul, touting lower Congressional Budget Office (CBO) price-tag estimates, support from multiple national health care activist groups, and a favorable editorial from The New York Times. Republicans blasted away at the bill, saying the lower CBO estimates are misleading and do not match up with all that the Democrats' are proposing. Republicans also argued that the funding for the health bill would violate President Barack Obama's promise to not add any new taxes to households earning less than $250,000.

Sen. Christopher Dodd, D-Conn., said health care reform is making very good progress and a CBO cost estimate of $600 billion (down from over $1 trillion) is a great sign for a new draft of the bill that he now says will cover 97 percent of all Americans.

A 97 percent success rate, Republicans say, is not achievable without massive Medicaid expansion, which is not included in the CBO's most recent cost estimate. "This bill doesn't come close to achieving our goal of reducing health care costs and helping everyone get the care they need," said Sen. Mike Enzi, R-Wyo., the lead Republican on the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions (HELP) Committee.

Republicans accused the Democrats of "rush and spend" habits and said they hoped to slow down the post-Fourth of July legislative push. "You can't spend money you don't have," said John Thune, R-S.D.

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