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Congress Set For Busy July

The Senate and House return this week to uncertainty about how much the chambers can achieve in the short month of July before heading home again for the August recess.

The House has just three weeks and the Senate four to accomplish their goals, but discontent over strict spending levels could make it more difficult for GOP leaders to pass many of the 13 fiscal 2004 appropriations bills, while additional pressures to address other Republican priorities likewise threaten to hamper Congress’ progress on spending bills.

That’s particularly true in the Senate, where Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-Tenn.) has set what he has acknowledged is a very ambitious schedule.

“I’ve seen the list of items, and it’s just not achievable,” said former Majority Leader Trent Lott (R-Miss.). “I told [Frist] he needs to be able to go ahead and tell somebody that he’s not going to be able to do it all.”

Frist said the Senate will be “in appropriations mode” in July, but also outlined an agenda that includes his plans to revisit the ongoing partisan fight over President Bush’s judicial nominations, finish debate on an energy policy bill, address medical malpractice legislation, take up a bill to punish criminals who injure pregnant women’s fetuses, and a bill to prohibit genetic discrimination, among other things.

“Senator Frist has all kinds of demands on floor time. So I don’t know what he’ll bring up,” said Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-Ala.), who noted Senate Judiciary members may press him to bring up an asbestos litigation bill as well as a measure to move most class-action suits to federal court.

And Lott said Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation panel members also will be eager bring up legislation to roll back new Federal Communications Commission regulations that allow large media companies to own more television and radio stations as well as newspapers.

A conference committee bill on a measure to ban a form of late-term abortion that opponents of the procedure have dubbed “partial birth abortion” could also come up in July, according to aides.

Additionally, Frist and Speaker Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.) will be under intense pressure from the White House to quickly conference their widely divergent measures creating a prescription drug benefit under Medicare as well as a measure to extend $400 tax-rebate checks to low-income families.

Both leaders, however, have put the White House on notice that they want to take their time on Medicare, in particular.

“We are going to take as much time in this conference as necessary to get this done,” Frist said before leaving for the July Fourth recess.

House GOP leaders are concerned that a hard deadline dictated by the Bush administration would cut the legs out from under them, giving Senate negotiators more leverage. That could result in a final bill more closely resembling the Senate version and without the market-based reforms that would be necessary to attract conservative votes when the conference report hits the floor.

“On Medicare we’ve asked for the White House not to put a time frame on the conference,” said a House GOP leadership aide.

While Members work behind the scenes on Medicare, the Senate is expected to begin this week with a largely symbolic procedural vote on a bill to limit doctors’ liability in medical malpractice cases. The expected vote, designed to avert a Democratic filibuster, is not likely to get the needed 60 votes, Senate GOP aides acknowledged.

Following at least two days on medical malpractice, Frist plans to bring up the State Department authorization bill. Then he plans to make good on his decision to reignite the partisan battle over judicial nominations by staging a floor skirmish over the nominations of Miguel Estrada to sit on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit and Priscilla Owen to be a judge on the 5th Circuit Court of Appeals. Democrats have been filibustering both nominations since March.

By the end of the week, Frist hopes to begin debate on the military construction spending bill, which traditionally enjoys wide bipartisan support.

In the House, GOP leaders hope to pass their defense spending bill as well as the often contentious Labor and Health and Human Services appropriations bill this week. They will also take up the legislative branch spending bill, which funds Congress.

Both Frist and Senate Appropriations Chairman Ted Stevens (R-Alaska) have said they will wait for House passage of most appropriations bills before moving on their own versions. So far the House has passed its fiscal 2004 military construction bill and the homeland security spending measure.

While waiting for appropriations bills to come over from the House, the Senate will spend part of the week of July 14 on another floor fight over judges, according to Senate GOP aides. The chamber is also expected to continue debate on the military construction and defense spending bills.

Senate aides said Frist hopes to begin debate on the Labor-HHS and Education appropriations measures at the end of that week and he has blocked off the next week for the bill because he expects a contentious partisan fight over funding for education and health care programs.

Frist promised Senate Energy and Natural Resources Chairman Pete Domenici (R-N.M.) last month that the chamber would complete action on an energy bill, and has even told Members to keep their vacation plans for August flexible, eyeing the weekend of Aug. 1 in anticipation of extended debate.

But because of Frist’s previous willingness to sideline the energy bill for a variety of other priorities, Domenici and other Senators remain wary.

“There will be pressure [on Frist] to do other things,” said Lott. “The problem is, Senator Domenici has just about had it.”

Sen. Larry Craig (R-Idaho) agreed that he and Domenici would not take kindly to being pushed aside again.

“I think the chairman of the Energy committee and I are going to be hard pressed not to get our time,” said Craig.

During July in the House, the Republican leadership will be pushing to make up for some earlier delays by completing the 13 annual spending measures at a breakneck pace.

“The general fixture during the next three weeks will center on appropriations. That will be the brunt of the work,” said Greg Crist, spokesman for the House Republican Conference.

In addition to the three spending bills they plan to do this week, the full Appropriations Committee has already marked up two more bills — Agriculture and Interior — which are ready for floor action.

“We should finish all of those appropriations bills … at least out of the House by the time we leave in August,” Hastert told reporters June 27. “And so we have our work cut out ahead of us.”

House Republicans also plan to spend the first week back focusing on education issues. In addition to the Labor-HHS spending bill, the chamber will vote on two school and teacher-related bills.

In the longer term, GOP leaders will continue to emphasize the House’s productive record.

As Crist put it, “We’re like the post office — we deliver.”

That will include continuing to celebrate the sixth anniversary of passage of welfare reform. The House has already passed a new welfare measure this year and will press the Senate to move forward on the issue as soon as possible.

House Republicans also plan to continue their focus on the economy, viewing the movement of appropriations bills as a logical time to discuss deficits and fiscal discipline.