WASHINGTON – With the convention speeches finally delivered and dissected, Republicans and Democrats will return to Capitol Hill this week ready to get some work done, if only to prove to voters that they are better than Congress’ nearly single-digit approval rating indicates.

Right?

Well, probably not.

“With the presidential election so close and the partisanship in the House and the Senate on both sides, I don’t see us getting anything significant done before the election,” said U.S. Rep. Mike Michaud, D-District 2. “And as for the lame-duck session, I think that depends on the outcome of the presidential election.”

Congress left a mountain of unresolved issues when members skipped town in early August for a five-week recess. Many of those issues could have major implications in Maine.

For instance, without congressional action, the first installment of $500 billion in across-the-board spending cuts will be levied on defense budgets that support more than 8,000 contracting jobs in Maine.

The state’s fast-growing but controversial wind energy industry is also warily watching whether Congress will extend valuable tax credits that helped make Maine the wind power leader in New England.

And then there are a dozen individual budget bills, a multi-year farm bill, efforts to reform the troubled U.S. Postal Service, debate over whether to extend unemployment insurance benefits for the long-term unemployed and the tiny question of what to do about tax cuts set to expire on Jan. 1.

A quick look at the congressional calendar — which has the House in session fewer than 10 days between now and November — suggests that members of Congress would be hard-pressed to resolve many of these issues even if they wanted to. And with elections less than two months away, members of Maine’s delegation do not expect leaders to expend much effort trying.

“We are deferring the biggest issues of our time essentially to a 36-day period that constitutes the lame-duck session, which is preposterous given the enormity of these issues, not to mention the complexity and the profound impact that they may have on the future of our country,” Sen. Olympia Snowe, R-Maine, said as the two chambers prepared to leave town last month.

Here’s a look at two outstanding issues, their potential impact on Maine and how members of the state’s congressional delegation are involved:

DEFENSE CUTS

Last summer, lawmakers on both sides of the aisle came up with a scheme intended to force the parties to work together on reducing the federal deficit, after a political stalemate led to a credit downgrade. At the heart of this agreement was a mutually agreed-upon threat for failing to act: $1.2 trillion in across-the-board spending cuts over 10 years, half of which would come from the Department of Defense.

That threat has thus far failed to bridge the partisan divide, despite seemingly unanimous agreement that the so-called “sequestration” cuts must be avoided due to the potential impacts on military readiness and defense contractors. Instead, sequestration has become yet another election-year issue, even as the first round of cuts — slated to begin Jan. 1 — creeps ever closer.

Maine’s defense contracting industry is small compared to states such as Virginia and Florida, which happen to be presidential election battleground states. But defense-related companies employ thousands of Mainers. And at present, those companies are unsure where they will stand next year.

“That is the big question: we don’t know how the (Department of Defense) plans to implement sequestration,” said Rob Doolittle, spokesman for General Dynamics, the parent company of Bath Iron Works. With about 5,400 workers, BIW is one of Maine’s largest employers.

General Dynamics and defense contractors around the country are awaiting reports — possibly coming this week — on how the Obama administration plans to carry out across-the-board spending cuts on defense programs if Congress does not act.

“It really does come down to which contracts are going to be affected and how,” Doolittle said last week. Until then, he added, it would be mere speculation to say how employment at BIW or any other company shipyard might be affected.

Sen. Susan Collins, a Maine Republican who serves on the Senate Armed Services Committee, said programs from education to biomedical research would be affected by sequestration. But she raised the most concerns about the impacts of what she called “meat-ax cuts” on defense programs.

“Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta has described sequestration as ‘devastating’ and testified that it would ‘inflict severe damage to our national defense for generations,’” Collins said in a written statement to The Portland Press Herald. “The defense industry directly employs some 8,500 hard-working, highly skilled men and women here in Maine with an annual payroll topping $550 million. These deep cuts would not only hurt our state’s economy, but families and communities throughout our state.”

As influential members of both defense and financial committees, Collins and Snowe could play roles in discussions to avert sequestration. And as moderates within the Republican minority, they could provide critical votes to support — or block — proposals to avoid the cuts.

SHIFTING WINDS

Leaders within Maine’s wind energy industry like to point out that it has spent roughly $1 billion planning, developing and building wind farms in the Pine Tree State during the past decade. A healthy portion of that investment came during the recession and can be linked directly or indirectly to thousands of jobs, according to the industry.

A key federal subsidy that has helped drive the industry’s growth in Maine and nationwide will expire at year’s end, however. And like so many other issues, the question of whether to renew federal production tax credits for wind energy has become an election-year football.

The production tax credits are intended to help wind energy compete financially in the energy marketplace with cheaper, more abundant sources, such as coal and natural gas.

To renewable-energy proponents, such subsidies are a common-sense form of government assistance to encourage development of new technologies that will help make the country more independent. To critics, however, the tax credits are little more than “government welfare” for feel-good energy sources that still cannot compete on their own despite more than two decades of subsidization.

Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney has come out against renewal of the wind energy tax credits while President Obama strongly supports the subsidies.

Last week, more than 60 conservative organizations — including Americans for Prosperity, Freedom Works and the Competitive Enterprise Institute — sent a letter calling on congressional leaders to end what they called the “deplorable practice of using the tax code to favor certain groups over others.”

“American consumers — not Washington lawmakers — should decide the future of American energy,” reads the letter. “It is time to end special tax provisions that distort the energy market and increase energy prices. We urge you to let the wasteful wind (production tax credit) expire as planned at the end of the year.”

There are already more than 200 commercial wind turbines spinning on Maine mountaintops and ridge lines. Dozens more are under construction or in development, and hundreds are in the planning stages.

Most of those projects benefited from the wind energy tax credits set to expire.

“I wouldn’t say it will shut the door on all development in Maine, but it would certainly hurt it,” said Jeremy Payne, executive director of the Maine Renewable Energy Association and one of the industry’s most vocal proponents in the state. “For whatever reason, this production tax credit has become a political football.”

The expiration of subsidies for wind energy would delight the industry’s critics in Maine, who contend the massive turbines blight the landscape, disturb neighbors and wildlife, and offer little economic or environmental benefit.

But the tax credits have strong support from some powerful lawmakers from Midwestern and Western states where wind energy is big business. Just before the August recess, the Senate Finance Committee voted to renew the tax credits as part of a large package now headed to the Senate floor.

Snowe, who sits on the Finance Committee, supported the tax package and offered an amendment to provide long-term tax credits to offshore wind energy projects, which are regarded as even more promising in Maine if they technology can catch up.

Michaud and U.S. Rep. Chellie Pingree, D-District 1, have both supported continuing the tax credits.

Kevin Miller can be contacted at 317-6256 or at:

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