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Senate Republicans Seek Mid-October Exit

Concerned that an extended legislative session will give the four Senate Democrats running for the White House more opportunities to attack President Bush, some Senate Republicans have proposed an ambitious plan to wrap up work for the year by mid-October.

But Senate Democrats are already lashing out at the GOP plan, claiming it could neglect such key priorities as passage of a Medicare prescription drug bill and delay reauthorization of a massive, five-year highway funding bill.

The Democratic objections signal that the August recess did little to calm the bitter partisan atmosphere that the Senate has operated in over the past year.

“There is not a snowball’s chance in hell,” one senior Senate Democratic aide said of a possible mid-October adjournment. “There is too much work to be done.”

Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-Tenn.) has scheduled a GOP Conference meeting today to lay out his blueprint for the remainder of the legislative year and discuss an exit strategy.

In a memo circulated Wednesday, Senate GOP Conference Chairman Rick Santorum (Pa.) urged his colleagues to wrap up legislative work for the year as soon as possible in order to block Democrats from pushing their own issues.

“[The] Senate is [a] surrogate for the Presidential race — the [Democratic] presidential candidates will use the Senate to sound out national themes — this becomes the only arena for the national party to play in, and our messaging has to be highly coordinated with the White House,” Santorum wrote his colleagues.

“Their push in the fall will be: Iraq, economy (jobs and deficit), child tax credit, and under funding of key priorities (education, first responders and global AIDS).”

Santorum noted that an extended Senate floor fight over funding for the U.S. occupation of Iraq could derail other priorities.

Sen. Robert Byrd (D-W.Va.), a staunch opponent of the Iraq campaign, and Democratic presidential candidates have slammed the Bush administration for the lack of post-war planning for reconstructing Iraq. It’s unclear what restrictions Democrats may seek as the White House pushed for more money for the reconstruction.

“Pick One, Any One — other than approps bills in the fall, Medicare, energy, partial birth and faith-based conferences are the most important accomplishments to complete,” he wrote. “If we have a war supplemental, there really is only time for one or two other items to try to actually debate and pass.”

In an interview Wednesday, Santorum emphasized that GOP leaders must get Democratic cooperation in order to complete work on next year’s spending bills, eight of which have yet to be approved by the Senate.

“At this point in time, we have not seen a lot of cooperation by the other side,” said the Pennsylvania Republican. “But if we finish the appropriations bills, it is a matter of what you want to get done between now and the end of the year.”

Santorum suggested that rank-and-file lawmakers could return home while party leaders hash out the final details of larger bills such as the Medicare legislation and return to vote on final passage.

The GOP Conference chairman, though, emphasized he does not support the idea of wrapping up unfinished spending bills in an omnibus package, a concept that is unpopular with fiscal conservatives.

Some Republicans noted that a mid-October adjournment could also pay dividends for Republicans politically.

“The objective is have our ’04 guys go home and begin the groundwork for campaigning next year,” one Senate GOP aide said of lawmakers facing re-election.

The Senate is scheduled to adjourn for the year Oct. 3, but the chamber rarely meets its target.

At a news conference Wednesday, Senate Minority Leader Tom Daschle (S.D.) signaled that Democrats would be unwilling to allow the Senate to turn off the lights for the year unless key issues are addressed.

“There is a lot of work left to be done and very little time to do it,” he said.

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