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Leaders Use Threats to End Session

What do you do when you really want to light a fire under appropriators and get them to do what it takes to adjourn for the year?

Well, like Speaker Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.) did last week, you could scare them with the specter of a stop-gap spending bill to keep the government funded until Jan. 15, 2004. Or you could always go with the old standby of making them work on Saturdays.

But if you really want to avoid the collective yawn from appropriators in both chambers that generally greets such threats, you might try something a little off the beaten path.

Perhaps you could tell the Senate Appropriations chairman —Ted Stevens (R-Alaska), to be exact — that he will only have until Nov. 21 to work out agreements on nine outstanding fiscal 2004 appropriations bills. Otherwise, he’ll have to wait until October 2004 to alter the spending formulas for the majority of federal agencies.

Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-Tenn.) is trying mightily to lay down the law with Stevens, telling him that if he and his GOP subcommittee chairmen don’t hammer out deals on the five spending bills currently in conference and craft an omnibus including at least four others that have yet to pass the Senate, they won’t get another crack at those measures until fiscal 2005, according to a senior Senate GOP aide.

And they’d better do it all by Frist’s drop-dead date of Nov. 21, barely three weeks away and just in time for Congress to adjourn before Thanksgiving.

In other words, Frist is threatening to push a full-year continuing resolution that would allow Congress to keep the government funded at current fiscal 2003 levels throughout fiscal 2004, which ends Sept. 30, 2004. The latest short-term CR keeping the government afloat expires Friday.

Frist’s notion is to pass another CR on Friday that would last until Nov. 21 and then, if the work isn’t finished, let the chips fall where they may.

Of course, Frist could be bluffing.

Indeed, this week could shape up as a clash of the titans with Frist — who hasn’t yet celebrated his one-year anniversary as Majority Leader — trying to psych out a veteran of 35 years in the chamber on the eve of his 80th birthday.

And so far, according to aides, the cantankerous Stevens isn’t quite on board with his Majority Leader’s plans, and it remains to be seen whether he can be convinced.

The most immediate trouble spot for Stevens is Frist’s demand that he forget about trying to win separate passage of the four appropriations bills — Agriculture; Commerce, Justice, State and the Judiciary; District of Columbia; and Veterans Affairs, Housing and Urban Development and independent agencies — that haven’t passed the Senate and start wrapping them into an omnibus.

What is likely most troubling for Stevens is that Frist’s demand comes just two weeks after he told Stevens he’d give him a few days here and there to pass those remaining bills individually, even if an omnibus would be their ultimate resting place.

Stevens was able to secure Senate passage of the foreign operations spending bill and the Transportation and Treasury measure in the past two weeks without much trouble, but Frist has slotted no time for Stevens to bring up the Agriculture bill, as was planned, this week.

And as of Monday, Stevens remained unconvinced about Frist’s line-in-the-sand declaration.

“We are still going to try to get the bills done on an individual basis,” Stevens’ spokeswoman Melanie Alvord said Monday.

But one Senate GOP aide noted that each bill is bogged down with legislative riders that could draw filibusters or result in debates almost certain to last more than a single day, and Frist doesn’t feel he has days to spare if Congress is going to adjourn in three weeks.

So of course, the real effects of rushing toward an omnibus or a yearlong CR is that it will rob Congress of the leverage many lawmakers covet when squaring off with the Bush administration on some of the major issues they’ve decided to tack onto the spending bills.

And that, for all intents and purposes, is Frist’s real threat: the possibility that Congress will not get to have its say on whether the Federal Communications Commission can change media ownership rules, or whether the District of Columbia will have a private school voucher program, among other things.

Frist also is hoping to light a fire under the energy and Medicare conferees, beset by infighting and showing no clear light at the end of the tunnel.

The Majority Leader hopes if he can get the appropriators in gear, everybody else will fall in line and Congress can leave town after accomplishing its top three remaining goals — fiscal 2004 spending bills, a prescription drug benefit for Medicare, and an energy policy bill.

And while Frist’s tactics may seem like old hat, they’ve worked before — though not usually on the initial “drop dead” date set by the leaders.

While the House may not exactly be in full agreement with Frist, leaders in the chamber appear willing to entertain just about any threat (although they would certainly balk if a yearlong CR starts to look like a reality) if it gets them out of town faster.

Of the notion that the Senate would pass the buck on fiscal 2004 appropriations, the House is firmly opposed.

“That’s goofy. We would oppose that,” said one House GOP aide.

But the aide added, “If it gets Stevens to the negotiating table [on some of these spending bills], then, fine. But the reality is that a long-term CR is not going to happen.”

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