Like many schoolchildren, members of Congress were back at their desks Tuesday after a summer break. Unlike the students, lawmakers will immediately face major tests: on Iraq, children's health care, a home mortgage crisis and the budget.
The Senate reconvened at noon EDT and started work on a military construction and veterans spending bill. The first voted wasn't scheduled until 5 p.m., so few senators were on the floor. The House was scheduled to reconvene at 2 p.m.
Minutes after the session opened, several dozen anti-war protesters were escorted by police from the spectators' gallery after standing silently as Majority Leader Harry Reid brought up the subject of Iraq. Three wore T-shirts of the group Iraq Veterans Against the War.
Republicans returned relieved that Idaho Sen. Larry Craig decided to resign at month's end rather than prolong a scandal over his arrest in a men's room sex sting.
Democrats, meanwhile, were divided over the next step to take on Iraq. This month could be pivotal to the mission's future.
The Senate Foreign Relations Committee on Tuesday was holding hearings on a congressional report detailing problem areas in the Iraq mission. More hearings on the political and security force situation in Iraq will take place on Wednesday and Thursday. Next Monday, lawmakers are to hear long-awaited testimony from Gen. David Petraeus, the top military commander in Iraq, and U.S. Ambassador to Baghdad Ryan Crocker.
President Bush is expected to use Petraeus' report to boost the argument that his strategy of increasing U.S. troop strength has improved security in Iraq, and that an abrupt reduction would be a disaster.
The same report will also be cited by anti-war Democrats who say military success has little relevance given the failure of Iraqi politicians to stop sectarian fighting and create a viable government.
Those clashing views could come to the House and Senate floors in September in debates over the Pentagon's budget or a separate White House request for $147 billion in emergency spending for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Democrats, who control both chambers, say votes will come with strings attached. Just what strings could depend on positions Bush takes following the Petraeus report.
Some Democrats insist on a definite withdrawal date, possibly by next spring. Others are searching for more modest steps that would not face a presidential veto.
Senate Majority Leader Reid, D-Nev., said in a statement that he remained "absolutely committed to changing course in Iraq and bringing our troops home."
Many Republicans said through spring and summer that they wanted to hold off until September and the Petraeus report before acting to change policy.
"Now that time has come," Reid said, adding he is "willing and ready to help my Republican colleagues keep their word" by looking for bipartisan solutions to Iraq.
The first order of Senate business will be a vote on former Rep. Jim Nussle, R-Iowa, to take over as White House budget director. Nussle's nomination has been caught up in Democratic anger over the president's threat to veto most of the spending bills Congress is advancing for the new fiscal year starting Oct. 1. Bush claims they spend too much.
The House has passed its appropriations bills but the Senate has completed only one. Up first in the Senate are budgets for veterans, foreign aid and transportation programs.
The House Financial Services Committee will hold a hearing Wednesday on the subprime mortgage crisis and options for preventing a flood of homeowner foreclosures.
Sen. Charles Schumer, D-N.Y., said he was heartened by Bush's support last Friday for several Democratic-backed steps to help homeowners.
Since Bush adviser Karl Rove left and Attorney General Alberto Gonzales announced his resignation, "many of us have been wondering, is the president about to change course, to move to the middle of the road, to work with Democrats," Schumer said. "This is the first really concrete action we have seen where the president is indeed moving to the middle."
Eavesdropping and child healthcare
Still, there are many issues to fight about.
Democrats have been criticized by many of their supporters for letting Bush push them last month into temporarily expanding the government's ability to eavesdrop on suspected terrorists without warrants. That authority expires in six months. When it comes up for renewal, Democrats want to narrow the circumstances in which spy agencies can skip getting warrants from a special court.
House and Senate negotiators also hope to develop a final version of legislation that would add millions of children to a popular health insurance program. The White House threatened to veto both chambers' bills, which include big tax increases on tobacco products to pay for spending increases the White House says are unacceptable.
House-Senate negotiations will also resume on proposals to improve drug safety, reduce college costs and make the country more energy independent.
A Senate bill, facing a veto threat, calls for a 40 percent increase in average auto mileage to 35 miles per gallon by 2020. The House version doesn't address automobile fuel economy, but would require electric utilities to produce at least 15 percent of their power from renewable energy sources, an idea left out of the Senate version.
House hearings are also scheduled on the Utah mine disaster and the Minnesota bridge collapse.
The Senate will look slightly different in September. South Dakota Democratic Sen. Tim Johnson will be back at work nine months after suffering a life-threatening brain hemorrhage.