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‘Red Meat’ Back on Menu

Senate GOP Wants to Turn Up Heat on Democrats

Senate Republican leaders are hoping to clear part of next year’s plate by finding a few red-meat issues they can send to conference with the House before adjournment next month.

While most of the emphasis continues to be on finishing top-priority bills such as energy, Medicare and appropriations, Senate GOP leaders are still shopping around myriad proposals to see what, if anything, on their “B” list of legislation can be accomplished while leaders wait for pending conferences on the “A” list to yield results.

“Democrats had better just open the [Senate] calendar every morning, take a look at it, and be scared about what we’re going to do next,” said one senior Senate GOP aide. “We’re in a take-no-prisoners mode right now.”

Democrats scoffed at GOP attempts to improve their number of legislative accomplishments before the end of the year, noting that it may further complicate the already-twisted endgame.

“Notwithstanding the fact that Halloween is around the corner, we’re not scared,” said Ranit Schmelzer, spokeswoman for Senate Minority Leader Tom Daschle (D-S.D.).

She added, “They can’t reach agreement on a number of bills from which they’re already excluding Democrats, and in the meantime, they’re going to bring up bills which the majority of American people don’t agree with? It’s not a great strategy.”

While GOP leaders had previously suggested that they would not have the time to get to some of the issues that will rally their political base, they now have their sights set on finding a few second-tier priorities to focus on during the time they’re waiting for Medicare, energy and appropriations conferences to wrap up.

Indeed, they are floating proposals for time agreements and limited amendments on a number of bills and continue to seriously contemplate bringing up a controversial wildfire prevention bill, a measure to punish criminals who harm a pregnant woman’s fetus, a bill to protect firearms manufacturers from lawsuits, and more judicial nominees that Democrats find objectionable, among other things.

“Appropriations is the spinach, and all these other things are our dessert,” the Senate GOP aide said of the issues that will rally conservatives. “Everything is in play until it’s not.”

Meanwhile, House GOP leaders are not holding their breath for anything more than the Medicare prescription drug bill, the energy measure and appropriations.

“If anything else gets done between now and [adjournment], that is just gravy on top,” said Pete Jeffries, spokesman for House Speaker Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.).

Senate GOP aides acknowledge that getting one or two nonessential issues passed before adjournment will require Republicans to rule Senate procedure with an iron fist. That means filing motions to limit debate, or cloture, before debate has even begun, in order to avoid the otherwise inevitable long, drawn-out debates on the Senate floor.

Already, Senate GOP leaders are using that strategy in their attempt to get Utah Gov. Mike Leavitt’s nomination to run the Environmental Protection Agency approved before adjournment. Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-Tenn.) has already scheduled a cloture vote on the nomination for today.

They are likely to use the same tactics when they bring up Judge Charles Pickering’s nomination to the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals for a vote on the floor this week.

But expanding that approach to other issues could cause more legislative delays via a backlash from Democrats, who are already holding up action on some conference reports because they were not allowed to participate in the House-Senate negotiations.

Peppered among the red-meat issues on the Senate agenda are smaller must-pass bills, such as a measure to permanently ban taxes on Internet transactions and a bill to reauthorize the Fair Credit Reporting Act.

The current moratorium on Internet taxes expires at the end of this week, while FCRA — which would permanently prevent states from having financial privacy laws more stringent than the federal government — will be moot by the end of this year without Congressional action, said Sen. George Allen (R-Va.). The House has already passed its versions of the bills.

Allen said Senate leaders are also trying to figure out how to get an international corporate tax bill passed by both chambers and reconciled in conference committee in the scant few weeks left. Without a rewrite of some U.S. corporate tax breaks, the European Union may decide to impose trade sanctions on the United States.

The international corporate tax bill is one of the few instances where the House has actually been slower than the Senate. While the Senate Finance Committee has already approved its version, House Ways and Means has not yet acted.

However, Ways and Means may mark up the bill in the next week or so, and the measure could be on the House floor shortly thereafter. Senate floor action is more dubious, according to Finance Chairman Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa).

Senate GOP leaders also are vowing to force votes on the wildfire prevention bill, modeled after President Bush’s “Healthy Forests” initiative, which passed the House earlier this year. While the Senate version of the bill enjoys Democratic support, including from Daschle, some in the minority are trying to block its consideration, saying it would allow too much logging in national forests.

“Healthy Forests is going to be before the Senate [this year], and we’re going to give those guys a chance to put their money where their mouth is, especially Tom Daschle,” a senior Senate GOP aide said of the Democratic leader, who is up for re-election.

Whatever doesn’t get done this year is sure to pop up again next year, when both the presidential and Congressional election seasons will be in full swing.

Already Senate GOP leaders have given up on trying to pass a highway funding bill this year as well as a reauthorization of the 1996 “Welfare to Work” bill. Both are due to come to the Senate floor in either January or February. While the House has passed its welfare measure, it has yet to act on the highway bill.

Republican leaders in both chambers have acted on most of their original “to-do” list for the year — including both chambers’ passage of their own versions of the Medicare and energy measures, a $350 billion tax cut that was signed into law, and a ban on so-called “partial birth” abortions that President Bush is set to sign.

They’ve also at least attempted to move other priority items, such as a bill to restrict medical malpractice lawsuits, a measure to send more class action suits to federal courts, Bush’s “faith-based” initiative, school vouchers for the District of Columbia, and a welfare reauthorization bill.

All of those measures have passed the House but have gotten held up in the Senate.

Jonathan Grella, spokesman for House Majority Leader Tom DeLay (R-Texas), blamed “Democratic obstructionists” for the Senate’s inability to keep up with the House.

“It’s the perfect case for expanding the Republican majority in the Senate,” said Grella of the Senate GOP’s narrow 51-49 majority. “The House has been the legislative pace car.”

House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), however, said Republicans are counting their accomplishments before they happen.

“So far we don’t have much,” she noted last week. “We don’t have an energy bill or Medicare prescription drug bill. We have not finished our appropriations bills. There is talk they will all be rolled into an omnibus bill and … that would carry us into the next year. So I don’t think that there is much that this Congress can be proud of accomplishing.”

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