WASHINGTON - Members of the U.S. Congress begin 2010 scrambling to reduce the double-digit U.S. jobless rate, knowing their own jobs will be at stake in the November election if they fail to deliver.
With about one in 10 Americans out of work, the highest percentage in 25 years, President Barack Obama's fellow Democrats -- who control the Senate and House of Representatives -- are making job creation their top priority.
Americans have a lot of angst, a lot of anger, a lot of fear, said House Democratic leader Steny Hoyer. Whether you are a Democrat or a Republican or an independent, all polls show that jobs are the major issue.
Indeed, as the full Senate returns from the Christmas break on Wednesday, a week after the House, the jobs recovery will also be high on the White House agenda along with the massive relief effort for quake-stricken Haiti.
In addition to jobs, lawmakers face challenges on a host of fronts -- from healthcare and the record U.S. deficit, to climate change, efforts to tighten regulation of the U.S. financial industry and lapses in domestic security.
Members of both parties will closely follow the high-stakes election on Tuesday to fill the Massachusetts seat long held by the late Democratic Senator Edward Kennedy, for decades the party's leading liberal.
If Republicans pull off what would be a stunning upset in the traditionally Democratic state, as polls show is possible, it would shift the balance of power and rattle American politics.
Democrats would lose their 60-vote Senate supermajority needed to clear Republican procedural roadblocks. That would jeopardize Obama's legislative agenda.
The closer-than-anticipated contest in liberal Massachusetts reflects the anti-incumbent environment fueled largely by the high unemployment rate.
SENATE JOBS PACKAGE EXPECTED
Last month, the House passed a $155 billion bill that aims to stimulate the job market through infrastructure projects and helping states pay the salaries of public employees.
Assistant Senate Majority Leader Dick Durbin, along with Democratic Senator Byron Dorgan, is expected to offer a jobs package in coming weeks. It is likely to include efforts to boost small business and renewable energy, aides said.
If the Senate passes a jobs bill, it would have to be reconciled with the House measure.
Among Democrats' most immediate concerns is melding a Senate healthcare bill with one passed by the House to give Obama a final bill to sign into law so Democrats can put their full focus on generating employment after the deep economic slump.
The president would like to put his signature on such a measure before he addresses a joint session of Congress in late January or early February, and before he offers his annual budget.
Obama's budget proposal is taking on more interest than usual because of increased public concern about the rapidly increasing U.S. debt, now approaching $12.4 trillion.
The debt -- and efforts to control it -- promise to be an issue in November's election when the entire 435-member House and about a third of the 100-member Senate will be up for grabs.
The party in power traditionally loses seats in the first election after a new president takes office.
Accordingly, Republicans are expected to gain seats in the House and Senate. But at this point, congressional analysts say, not enough to take control of either chamber.
Republicans are also expected to make more noise this week over lapses in U.S. national security after the attempted Christmas Day bombing of a Northwest airliner.
Congressional hearings are planned to discuss what needs to be done on tightening security and among those set to testify next week are Director of National Intelligence Dennis Blair and FBI Director Robert Mueller.
(Additional reporting by Andy Sullivan; Editing by Mary Milliken)