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Congress Here Until January?

With GOP Congressional leaders struggling to set a deadline to adjourn for the year, major fights between Republicans have broken out during talks on at least three key appropriations bills, leading Speaker Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.) to privately threaten to keep Congress in session through the end of 2003.

The House, despite complaints from Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-Tenn.), is set to pass a new continuing resolution today keeping the federal government open until Nov. 7. The Senate is expected to take up the bill either today or early Friday, with the current CR expiring Oct. 31.

Even as debate on the latest CR kicks off, Hastert is quietly threatening to introduce a CR extending until Jan. 15, according to several House GOP sources.

Hastert’s proposal would mean that Congress would stay in session through Thanksgiving and the Christmas holidays and is designed to spur Senate action on its five outstanding appropriations bills.

But Hastert’s suggestion also brought immediate complaints from the House Appropriations Committee. “If they propose that, they’ll have to write it and introduce it themselves because [Appropriations] Chairman [Bill] Young [R-Fla.] strongly opposes it,” said John Scofield, Young’s spokesman.

The latest weeklong CR gives House and Senate Republicans more time to resolve their intra-party disputes, many of which have been eclipsed by the struggle over the $87 billion emergency spending bill for Iraq and Afghanistan, although in some cases, a week may not be long enough.

Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison (R-Texas) and Rep. Joe Knollenberg (R-Mich.), who chair the Senate and House military construction spending panels, are squabbling over roughly $100 million that the House wants spent on U.S. military bases in Europe and South Korea but which the Senate will not approve.

The $9.2 billion package also includes hundreds of millions of dollars of earmarked projects, although Senate appropriators are seeking far more for such projects than their House counterparts are willing to yield on. Young and Senate Appropriations Chairman Ted Stevens (R-Alaska) — or their leaders — may have to settle the dispute.

“Leadership is going to have to step in if the impasse continues,” Knollenberg said Wednesday.

Sen. Pete Domenici (R-N.M.) and Rep. David Hobson (R-Ohio), who are responsible for crafting the 2004 energy and water appropriations bill, have clashed over funding for the Yucca Mountain nuclear waste site in Nevada, with the two lawmakers originally several hundred million dollars apart in their demands.

A deal was in the works to fund Yucca at the original level requested by the Bush administration, about $140 million less than Hobson was seeking, although Domenici is still pushing hard for additional money for the Los Alamos and Sandia national labs in New Mexico. Little progress was reported in the most recent round of discussions, and Hobson has reportedly asked the White House to intercede on his behalf with Domenici.

On the massive funding bill for the Labor, Health and Human Services, and Education departments, party leaders are scrambling to find a way to give Sen. Arlen Specter (R-Pa.) political cover on the volatile issue of new federal overtime regulations.

The Senate has voted to cut off funding for revised Labor Department rules altering who is eligible for overtime pay, a proposal that labor union leaders charge could hurt millions of U.S. workers by denying them a chance to earn extra dollars. The House has voted alternately to support and then to block funding for the regulations.

But Specter is facing a primary challenge from the more conservative Rep. Pat Toomey (Pa.) and doesn’t want to be seen as caving into union demands. Big business has also lobbied heavily for the new regulations, further limiting Specter’s willingness to settle.

One proposal to end the impasse was to have Labor Secretary Elaine Chao send a letter to Capitol Hill saying the department needed more time to draft the rules. That plan, however, has been rejected, and other options are now under consideration.

“I think the overtime issue has to get resolved, and I’m not sure how quick it will be,” said Rep. Ralph Regula (R-Ohio), Specter’s House counterpart, signaling that the issue may have to be kicked up to Young and Stevens.

Regula is also one of three House Republicans seeking to take over the Appropriations Committee in the next Congress and is taking a hard line with Democrats who voted against the Labor-HHS bill but are still seeking funding for their projects. Regula’s stance, designed to win him support for the Appropriations gavel from his House GOP colleagues, could cause problems for Specter, who needs Democratic support to pass his bill in the Senate.

Several House leadership aides confirmed that the “Cardinals” of the Appropriations Committee are less willing to cut deals than in the past and are under pressure from their own leadership to remain steadfast.

“The culture of the Appropriations committees has always been kind of a club. They don’t have the flexibility to do that now,” said a senior House GOP leadership staffer.

“We’ve been pounding on them for years, and now it seems to have gotten through.”

These House-Senate spending disputes are taking place against a backdrop of a larger disagreement between the Republican leadership in the two chambers over the best way to bring an end to the session.

Frist had sought a CR that ran until Nov. 14, arguing that the Senate needed more time to deal with the five appropriations bills that have yet to be considered by that chamber — as well as completing work on issues such as the Iraq funding bill, Medicare reform and energy legislation. The House Appropriations Committee actually backed the Senate’s request.

But House Majority Leader Tom DeLay (R-Texas) insisted on a shorter CR, arguing that a longer CR would not apply the kind of pressure needed to force lawmakers to reach compromises.

With Hastert’s support, DeLay’s position won out, although leadership sources expect that next CR to be roughly two weeks, extending until Nov. 21 or 22nd — unless Hastert carries through on his Jan. 15 threat.

Some GOP leadership aides cautioned against reading too much into the “sausage- making” going on during negotiations over appropriations bills, arguing that focusing on individual House-Senate disputes obscures the real progress being made overall.

“It seems like there’s not a lot of progress because everything is focused on the [Iraq] supplemental,” said Eric Ueland, Frist’s deputy chief of staff. “But truly, progress is being made.”

Ueland said all 13 appropriations bills will come in under the $784 billion spending cap agreed to by Hastert and Frist earlier in the year. “The Speaker and the Leader are on the same page,” Ueland added.

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