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As they left town for a Thanksgiving break, Republican Congressional leaders basked in the glow of final passage of a Medicare prescription drug bill and ticked off a modest list of other achievements this year, including passage of leftover fiscal 2003 appropriations, a budget resolution, a new tax cut, an AIDS bill for Africa, the Iraq supplemental appropriation and anti-spam legislation.

On the other hand, Congress still has failed to finish passing funding bills for fiscal 2004, which began Oct. 1, and it’s not at all clear when it will complete work on an omnibus appropriations measure. It may not happen until next year, virtually canceling out the Senate GOP talking point that Republicans had to clean up the ’03 funding mess left by the former Democratic Senate.

Moreover, it’s fair to say that the political atmosphere on Capitol Hill during this session has been the most ugly in recent memory. The House leadership passes bills basically by excluding Democrats and arm-twisting Republicans, as evidenced most dramatically during the all-night Medicare debate culminating in a three-hour roll call held open until a majority was whipped into line. In the Senate, almost everything has to be approved by 60 votes to overcome filibusters. This requires a modicum of bipartisanship, but it is grudging and surrounded by the rhetoric of vituperation.

As they reviewed the year’s activities in a press conference last Tuesday, Senate GOP leaders used the expression “Democratic obstructionism” more often than “legislative achievement.” They made reference especially to President Bush’s six filibustered judicial appointees and also to the energy bill blocked despite its containing enough greasy pork to slide from here to Louisiana. But it’s Senate GOP inefficiency, not anyone’s obstructionism, that led to a logjam of seven appropriations bills that now has to be massed into one giant omnibus measure.

The House, operating under authoritarian rules and even more authoritarian leadership, passed all 13 appropriations bills this year on time. The Senate approved 12 — most of them in November — but conference reports on seven are still hanging fire, due to be passed in the omnibus. Time was — especially in the late 1980s and early 1990s — when Congress held individual debates on appropriations bills. Since 1994, this has happened only twice, in 1997 and 2001. Otherwise, catchalls — usually pork-laden — have been the rule.

This year’s omnibus, Republicans point out, will be held to close the dollar total of the fiscal ’04 budget resolution. But that doesn’t guarantee it won’t be loaded with hidden projects and surprise policy changes that deserve full debate. Moreover, we can’t even be sure it will pass this year or that it won’t be filibustered in the Senate. At least the House is coming back to town Dec. 8 to finish the bill. The Senate ought to be back then, too, and stay until its work is done.

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