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Iraq, Estrada Cloud Legislative Agenda

Both chambers return to work this week with the legislative agenda clouded by uncertainty about a possible war with Iraq and a controversial judicial nomination that has stalled action in the Senate.

With international opposition to a possible U.S. war with Iraq building over the recess, House Republican leaders are planning a communications campaign aimed at raising support for President Bush.

The House GOP Conference will have its first meeting today to hash out just how they will communicate with the public if and when the U.S. strikes on Iraq occur.

Top House GOP aides have dubbed the effort a “War War Room,” which would give lawmakers the information and tools to communicate with their constituents on a 24-hour basis if Bush decides to go to war.

The Conference will also begin to educate its Members about how to inform their constituents about the citizen preparedness plan laid out last week by Homeland Security Secretary Tom Ridge.

“Constituents are looking to their Members for some guidance and reassurance that a comprehensive plan is in place,” said Greg Crist, spokesman for House GOP Conference Chairwoman Deborah Pryce (Ohio).

In addition to the ambiguity about Iraq, the legislative agenda will continue to be mired in a dispute over the judicial nomination of Miguel Estrada.

The Senate has been tied in knots over Estrada’s nomination to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit, with Democrats vowing to block his confirmation vote until he answers some unresolved questions and releases memoranda he wrote during his time working in the solicitor general’s office.

“Senate Democrats asked for information that they feel they need in order to fulfill their constitutional obligation to advise and consent on this nomination,” said Ranit Schmelzer, spokeswoman for Senate Minority Leader Thomas Daschle (D-S.D.). “They have not yet received it and until they do, [Republicans] are not going to be able to vote on the nominee.”

For their part, Republicans say they have no intention of backing down.

“It is expected at this point we will be on the nomination of Miguel Estrada for most, if not all, the week,” said Bob Stevenson, spokesman for Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-Tenn.).

The standoff is a continuation of a fight that began before Congress left for the Presidents Day recess.

Throughout the week, House Republican leaders will voice their solidarity with their Senate colleagues over the Estrada standoff.

“Let’s just allow a vote,” said Crist. “We’ve heard the debate and there’s nothing wrong with debating, but at the end of a healthy debate, let’s vote up or down.”

Before adjourning on Feb. 14, Frist and other Republican leaders released a list of priorities they want to address such as welfare reform, prescription drugs and a ban on late-term abortions. The senior GOP aide said Republican leaders are prepared to address any of these issues if the Estrada matter is resolved.

Daschle is also expected to try to muscle some of the Senate Democrats’ top issues onto the floor. “He has been seeking input from the Caucus about what to take to the floor in March,” said a senior Democratic aide. “But I don’t think he has made a decision yet.”

While all eyes will be on the House and Senate floor action, most of the heavy lifting in coming weeks will take place in the Senate and House Budget committees, where Republicans will work to craft a resolution that closely mirrors President Bush’s priorities.

Senate Budget Chairman Don Nickles (R-Okla.) has said he is aiming to have a resolution on the floor by early April that will outline spending limits in the 2004 appropriations bills and help determine whether enough money will be carved out for some of Bush’s top priorities — such as the $674 billion tax cut and a Medicare prescription drug plan.

“What we are building towards is the budget resolution because everything flows from that,” said a senior Senate GOP aide.

The House on Thursday will vote on a bipartisan bill outlawing human cloning, the major legislative activity of the week. But behind the scenes, lawmakers will try to make progress on various fronts.

Ways and Means Chairman Bill Thomas (R-Calif.) has decided to endorse the president’s economic package and plans to introduce legislation mirroring the proposal late in the week.

On Wednesday afternoon Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld will hold yet another Members-only classified update on Iraq.

House Republicans and Democrats will end their week with a bipartisan “civility” retreat scheduled Friday through Sunday at the Greenbrier resort in West Virginia. The retreat has become a tradition in recent years, although it has been criticized for producing few lasting results.

Reps. Ray LaHood (R-Ill.) and Charlie Stenholm (D-Texas) will co-chair the three-day session this year. House Democratic and Republican leaders, however, are not signing up in droves to make the five-hour trek by train to the Greenbrier.

A spokeswoman for Speaker Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.) said her boss was planning to attend. Majority Leader Tom DeLay (R-Texas), Majority Whip Roy Blunt (Mo.) and Pryce are not expected to attend. Pryce has a scheduling conflict; she is holding a fundraiser for her charity, Hope Street Kids.

Democratic Caucus Chairman Bob Menendez (N.J.) will not attend the event. Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) is not sure whether she will attend, and Minority Whip Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) is expected to be there to support the effort to improve relations between the two parties.

Erin P. Billings contributed to this report.

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