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The Roadmap: Calling Dr. Frist

They say there’s more than one way to skin a cat — a subject about which Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-Tenn.) undoubtedly has some knowledge — but the real difficulty for the doctor this week is likely to be in the “herding cats” category.

House Republican leaders may be in the same

position this week as they figure out how to keep their rank and file in town long enough to finish work on two appropriations bills, something House leaders realized they could not accomplish last week because a raft of Members were playing hooky.

Frist, however, clearly has the more demanding job. In an interview last week, he vowed to ratchet up the “momentum” for the nine remaining fiscal 2004 spending bills on the Senate agenda by keeping the chamber focused on appropriations “until we get it done.”

But the often mind-numbing appropriations process is already having a hard time competing for the attention of GOP lawmakers — what with President Bush telling Congress that he needs more money ($87 billion, to be exact) for the U.S. occupation of Iraq as well as distressing new GOP poll numbers that show Americans are losing faith in the government’s ability to stimulate the economy and stem the increasing human and monetary costs of occupying Iraq.

Indeed, Frist’s resolve to keep his appropriations promise already appears to be waning in the face of what seems to be a never-ending internal Senate Republican debate over whether to seize on sexy, media-friendly agenda items — or work on the only bills Congress is specifically mandated by the Constitution to complete.

“There’s been a discussion about, ‘Should we get on appropriations and stay on appropriations, or go on to other issues to give people something to talk about?’” said Sen. Trent Lott (R-Miss.). “Appropriations really don’t give you much to talk about.”

Just yesterday, Frist spokesman Bob Stevenson backtracked a bit from his boss’ promise to turn to the District of Columbia and energy and water spending bills following the possible completion this week of the $464 billion Labor, Health and Human Services and Education appropriations bill.

“There will be opportunities between these [spending] bills to take care of other items,” Stevenson said. “Obviously, [Frist] wants to stay on appropriations … but [a bill on] class action is a distinct possibility” for the end of this week.

Part of the problem, it seems, is that even Frist’s own deputies in the leadership are divided on what agenda items to pursue.

Senate Republican Conference Chairman Rick Santorum (Pa.) urged colleagues in a memo last Thursday to focus on the issues an internal GOP poll showed that Americans are most concerned about — the economy (30 percent), defense (16 percent), health care (11 percent) and education (9 percent).

Not surprisingly, the arcane appropriations process just didn’t rate as an issue that Americans find most important for Congress to deal with.

“It is critical that we continue to focus legislatively on jobs and economy,” Santorum wrote. “We should prioritize key legislation that has economic benefit and present it as our fall Jobs and Growth Initiative.”

Specifically, Santorum wants the Senate to: finish the energy bill conference; bring up a bill to end asbestos lawsuits by creating a centralized fund for victims; pass the class-action bill to make it easier to send such lawsuits to federal courts; move an overhaul of international tax law; and reauthorize the highway funding bill and the Small Business Administration, along with addressing a host of health care and education concerns.

Buried on the last page of Santorum’s memo (though helpfully bolded) is a recommendation to “finish our business, and complete all of the appropriations bills.”

Santorum continues (unbolded this time), “This will be an important contrast with the Democrats who were not able to get the job done while they were in the majority.”

Indeed, Senate Democrats left 11 of 13 fiscal 2003 spending bills undone at the end of the 107th Congress. The new Republican Senate majority completed them as part of an omnibus measure in January.

But if Frist’s decision-making skills are in doubt, so are Santorum’s. He appears to be in conflict with himself about what the Senate’s fall agenda should be.

As the architect of another memo last Wednesday that preceded his agenda missive, Santorum advocated finishing up the Senate’s business by mid-October in order to prevent the four Senate Democrats running for president from having an open forum to attack President Bush.

However, completing Santorum’s ambitious “message” agenda as well as the spending bills would not allow Congress to adjourn until nearly Thanksgiving, with appropriations likely the last train out of the station. That would beat the Democrats’ appropriations record by only about two months.

Meanwhile, the House won’t exactly be twiddling its thumbs this week.

A curious lack of Members prevented House leaders from completing business on a D.C. spending bill on Friday, when several close votes were expected. They had already decided on Thursday to push back until this week the final votes on the Treasury-Transportation appropriations bill, because it was already 9 p.m. and “they didn’t want to kill themselves,” according to a House GOP aide.

It’s unclear whether the Members who went missing on Friday before the final votes on the D.C. bill will get a tongue-lashing or more from House Majority Leader Tom DeLay (R-Texas) or Majority Whip Roy Blunt (R-Mo.). After all, the House has plenty of time to lollygag over their last two appropriations while waiting for the Senate to complete nine.

Once they’re done with their appropriations bills, which should happen this week barring any other unforeseen absences, most House Members are likely to find themselves idle — that is, unless they’re on a conference committee dealing with Medicare prescription drugs or energy policy.

One senior GOP House leadership aide said the ambitious Monday through Friday schedule the House adhered to for much of this year will likely be abandoned in the coming weeks.

“We’ll probably have late-Tuesday-to-early-Thursday [work] weeks,” said the aide, adding only half in jest: “Once we get to October, maybe we’ll have early-Wednesday-to-late-Wednesday-night weeks.”

Sept. 11

While the House is planning only a possible vote on a resolution remembering the two-year anniversary of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, the Senate on Thursday may actually continue its unrelated legislative work.

“We recognize that we have work to do,” said Stevenson, who noted the aim would be to keep votes to primarily “noncontroversial items.”

Still, he noted, “Noncontroversial is in the eye of the beholder.”

Mark Preston contributed to this report.

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