The Tortoise and the Hare

Posted February 23, 2004 at 6:39pm

The classic tale of the tortoise and the hare comes to mind watching the second session of the 108th Congress evolve, as the House — the traditional jack rabbit of legislative activity — comes closer with each passing week to being overtaken by the slow-moving Senate.

Since the middle of last year, House leaders blamed their light legislative weeks on waiting for the Senate to “catch up” with them on legislation addressing a national energy policy,

welfare reauthorization, “tort reform” issues, Medicare and appropriations — among other GOP policy priorities.

But now the Senate appears to be quickly gaining on the House and even beating them to the punch on some of the “must-pass” issues of the year, such as a jobs-laden highway bill and a corporate tax measure designed to protect U.S. companies from European Union trade sanctions that are set to begin next week.

“The House doesn’t believe that the Senate can get much done, so they’re just waiting to see what we can do,” said one senior Senate GOP aide, who noted that the Senate has continually defied the expectations of House leaders this year.

“They didn’t think we could get a highway bill done, but we did,” added the Senate aide. “They don’t think we can get a [corporate tax bill] done. They probably think we can’t get a budget done either.”

Indeed, the stars appear to be aligning in the Senate for the corporate tax measure’s ultimate passage. The budget fight will be trickier, but Senate conservatives on the Budget panel appear to be listening to the moderate swing votes that could make or break their ability to get a budget blueprint for the next five years through the chamber. The budget’s outlook in the House is also blurry.

To be sure, the House remains far ahead of the Senate in the number of bills passed so far this Congress. However, this week’s high-profile and contentious House debate over a bill to punish those who harm a pregnant woman’s fetus will not bring the chamber any closer to passing the highway bill or corporate tax measure — two time-sensitive measures that many Republicans agree will lose some of their impact if not passed early this spring.

Both measures are stymied in the House, while the Senate, having finished the highway bill earlier this month, is set to begin debate on the corporate tax bill later this week or next.

Still, Jonathan Grella, spokesman for House Majority Leader Tom DeLay (R-Texas), downplayed the significance of the Senate’s faster pace on the highway and corporate tax measures, and vowed that both would see action on the House floor this year.

“When the Senate overachieves, then certainly they’re going to give themselves a pat on the back, and we’ll cheer them on too,” said Grella. “Everything is expected to pass the House. The expectations bar for the House is a byproduct of the very effective tenure of this [Republican] majority. … The expectations bar for the Senate has been much lower.”

While the House GOP leadership still retains the power to force many legislative victories through the chamber, they appear to be losing some of their arm-twisting sway in the wake of last November’s three-hour Medicare prescription drug vote, during which many GOP conservatives felt they were forced to swallow their small-government beliefs and vote for a large expansion of a federal entitlement program.

Republicans prevailed on the Medicare bill by only five votes, and the pressure tactics they used have sparked a House ethics panel review over whether one Member, Rep. Nick Smith (R-Mich.), was offered a bribe in the form of campaign contributions for his son’s Congressional race.

Regardless of the tactics they use, Grella said the House Republican leadership is bound to be criticized.

“Either we’re so effective that we’re strong-arming everybody, or we’re not effective at all,” said Grella of the complaints he’s heard about House leaders.

“People only pay attention to the bills you haven’t passed or that you passed with two votes,” Grella continued, noting House GOP leaders rarely get credit for the scores of bills that pass by wide, comfortable margins.

As for those bills that they have not passed, House Republican leaders have not been able to control Rep. Don Young (R-Alaska), who heads the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee and is in charge of crafting the House version of the highway bill.

Because of GOP leadership objections to his proposed gas tax increase as well as the overall cost of his bill, Young has had to postpone the markup of his bill several times. Rather than considering it in committee on Wednesday, as had been the plan, Young hopes to bring it up March 3 or 4 instead.

Before that happens, some agreement among Republicans will have to be reached on how to pay for the $375 billion bill, or Young and his committee allies will have to agree to scale it back, which they have been reluctant to do. Either way, it’s unclear whether House Ways and Means Chairman Bill Thomas (R-Calif.) will be able to, or want to, find offsets for even a slightly lower number.

By all accounts, Thomas is also causing trouble for his leadership. He has been unable to move his corporate tax bill due to the opposition of House Small Business Chairman Don Manzullo (Ill.), who is leading a cadre of Republicans upset that the bill does not address tax breaks for small manufacturing firms.

The current impasse comes after Thomas faced a committee revolt, led by fellow Republican Phil Crane (Ill.) and Rep. Charlie Rangel (D-N.Y.), the ranking member on Ways and Means, over the scope of the bill.

Because Thomas agreed to make some of the changes Crane and Rangel demanded, Thomas’ spokeswoman Christin Tinsworth set low expectations for further tinkering with the bill.

“We already gave,” she said.

Grella, however, dismissed any notion that GOP leaders are losing their grip on rank-and- file Members.

“I don’t think it’s indicative of a larger trend,” he said. “We’ve never had the luxury of doing it effortlessly, but if results are what matter, then this has been an extremely effective majority.”

While the House waits for the intraparty squabbles over the two bills to settle, they’ve been engaged in what Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) has dubbed “drive-by” legislating — coming in for just two days a week, voting on largely noncontroversial measures and leaving the heavy lifting for later.

During the two weeks the Senate debated the highway and transit funding bill this month, the House’s response was to postpone the deadline for action on the bill by passing a four-month extension of the current year’s spending levels on highways and transit projects, which means they don’t have to act until the end of June on a new six-year highway funding bill.

The House also spent those first two weeks of February on a Social Security fraud bill, four nonbinding resolutions, a housing technical corrections bill, an American Indian issues technical corrections bill, and a measure on Africa’s Congo Basin forest.

This week doesn’t appear to be that different, with probably just two days of votes, one high-profile vote on the “Unborn Victims of Violence Act,” and six suspension calendar bills, including two nonbinding resolutions.

But Grella said the lighter load was always the plan for this presidential election year. “We front-loaded this schedule so we could govern more effectively in the off-year,” he said.

Meanwhile, the Senate hopes to catch up to the House’s “tort reform” activity by passing bills to protect obstetrician/gynecologists and gun manufacturers from lawsuits. The medical liability bill is unlikely to make it, but the gun measure just might pass with the addition of a few Democratic-sponsored gun control amendments.