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Running Out of Time Again?

How is it that Congressional leaders continue to fall into the same tired routine year after year? Running out of time, postponing the inevitable, increasing partisan tensions and raising lobbyists’ blood pressure.

That’s the situation facing House and Senate Republican leaders this week as they approach the end of the federal government’s fiscal year — Sept. 30 — and prepare to pass a stop-gap spending bill to keep

the country’s beloved federal agencies afloat until at least Halloween.

But passing a month-long continuing resolution, the tried and true method of Congressional procrastination, means Hill leaders are only adding to their workload by giving Members more time to dream up additional “priorities.”

For example, Senate leaders already have a nascent plan to use October — not including the week of Oct. 6, when they’ll be in an unusual fall recess — for items other than finishing appropriations conference reports. In fact, they could just forget about trying to do stand-alone appropriations altogether once both chambers pass the CR at the end of this week.

“There may not be a real will to drag more appropriations to the floor,” said one Senate GOP leadership aide. “It may be just assumed that everything not done by the time we pass the CR goes into the omnibus.”

And why can’t they do more free-standing appropriations bills? Well, they would have been able to, if it weren’t for the Bush administration asking Congress for $87 billion to pay for the occupation of Iraq and Afghanistan. That’s going to take up some serious floor time, especially in the Senate.

But don’t press either chamber on when they’ll bring it to the floor. They’ve got to have hearings first, and they’re already arguing over which chamber should go first.

Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-Tenn.) wants his chamber to have its version finished by Oct. 3, right before Senators take off for that week-long break. But House leaders have indicated they don’t want to move on their bill until the week of Oct. 6 (while the Senate is out of town).

Senate Appropriations Chairman Ted Stevens (R-Alaska) is so far inclined to wait on them, as is tradition. Sen. Robert Byrd

(D-W.Va.), the panel’s ranking member, has put the White House on notice that he wants to take his own sweet time considering the funding request — and no doubt taking to the Senate floor with hours-long speeches filled with finger-wagging and shouting about what he sees as the Bush administration’s failed Iraq policies.

Beyond that, the pesky supplemental’s price tag could spike if the costs of Hurricane Isabel get added to the mix. And it’s a good bet that the Federal Emergency Management Agency, which Congress shortchanges by $200 million in its current funding scheme, will want to get the full amount requested by the president and then some.

But the jury’s still out on whether hurricane disaster aid funding, the costs of which should be known by week’s end, will make it easier or harder to pass the already endangered supplemental. Republican leaders are hoping for the former.

“Isabel might help pull the Iraq supplemental through,” one hopeful senior Senate GOP aide said.

Even as they prepare for the worst-case scenarios on the supplemental and an omnibus, Republican leaders remain mindful that they need to somehow dampen criticism over the slow pace of appropriations. That’s why they will be racing this week to send to the president the conference reports funding the Defense and Homeland Security departments.

Understandably, Members think it might look bad if the soldiers risking their lives in Iraq and Afghanistan as well as domestic law enforcers in the continuing war on terror

didn’t get their pay raises on time.

And lest Congress go underfunded at the fiscal 2003 levels that executive branch agencies will have to deal with under the CR, the legislative branch appropriations bill is likely to be sent to the president this week as well. Early passage for that bill became more crucial this year because appropriators ingeniously added $937 million in emergency fiscal 2003 supplemental spending for wildfire management, disaster relief (prior to Hurricane Isabel) and other issues.

But wait. If the House and Senate send three appropriations bills to the president this week, the Senate gives up on the normal appropriations process, and they both wait until the second and third weeks of October to take up the supplemental, what are they going to do next week?

Good question. But don’t worry. The House, having already passed all 13 spending bills, is in a holding pattern while it waits for the omnibus and supplemental spending bills to be drafted. There are plenty of suspension calendar items to go around, and who knows, maybe they will finish that energy conference report or defy the odds and come up with a deal on the Medicare prescription drug plan. Stranger things have happened.

As for the Senate, GOP Conference Chairman Rick Santorum (Pa.) this week or next will unveil the GOP’s fall economic agenda, which conveniently includes several measures already on the Republican priority list and passed by committee.

Santorum will be touting the economically stimulative effects of passing a bill that sends more class-action lawsuits to federal courts and thereby (sponsors hope) reduces the liability payments to plaintiffs. He will also be talking up the benefits of creating a Congressionally sponsored — but industry funded — asbestos victims fund to make sure more companies don’t go bankrupt. Also on Santorum’s list is a bill to revamp the corporate tax code.

But that’s not all. Though Republicans continue to be mindful of that old Democratic adage — “It’s the economy, stupid” — Senate Majority Whip Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) is hoping to get a little social policy work done in the form of a bill to increase penalties for people who injure pregnant women and their fetuses.

With all that new business to take care of, it’s possible that Congress will have to put off a few other high-priority issues, such as making sure the Federal Aviation Administration and the highway trust fund continue to operate, as well as reauthorizing the 1996 “Welfare-to-Work” law. All three expire Sept. 30.

The FAA and highway trust fund authorizations have been held up, respectively, by filibuster threats and an inability to figure out how to fund all those highway projects Members want. Extensions of both may be included in the CR this week. However, some GOP aides indicated the highway trust fund extension may move separately.

As for welfare, it’s hard to expect the Senate Finance Committee to get a bill to the Senate floor with all the tax cuts, trade agreements and Medicare changes they’ve had to deal with this year. Granted, the House passed its version already, but House GOP leaders have the luxury of rushing measures through their chamber.

But Santorum hopes to ratchet up the pressure by insisting on a short, possibly one-month, extension for the welfare law. He’s hoping that will force Finance Chairman Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) and House Ways and Means Chairman Bill Thomas (R-Calif.) to come to an agreement before Congress adjourns for the year. Given their already tense relationship, their inability so far to reconcile the House and Senate versions of the Medicare prescription drug bill, and the strong Senate opposition to the House welfare measure, that may be wishful thinking.

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