With a lame-duck session appearing inevitable, Senate Republican leaders hope to set aside nearly a month for Members to campaign before coming back for a post-election session.
In fact, Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-Tenn.) has set Oct. 8 as the optimistic date for complete adjournment, while realistically preparing to at least close up shop that day and return sometime after the Nov. 2 elections, according to several Senate GOP sources.
“There will be discussions about a lame-duck session, and people will be writing about it,” said Frist in a floor speech Tuesday. “Our goal is to complete this session by October 8.”
Despite that proclamation, Sen. Trent Lott (R-Miss.) and other Senate GOP sources confirmed that Frist will push for Congress to leave by Oct. 8, regardless of whether their work is done, because he does not want Senate business to interfere with the re-election efforts of Republican Senators — especially those, such as Alaska’s Lisa Murkowski, in tight races.
“We’ll be out of here the 8th, just because people need to go home — particularly in the House,” said Sen. Craig Thomas (R-Wyo.). “Whether we come back or not is something else.”
But mindful of previous long, drawn-out lame-duck sessions that stretched into December, Frist hopes to get Members home for the holidays before Thanksgiving by limiting Senate floor debate after the election to conference reports — which cannot be amended — on such potential topics as appropriations, taxes, energy and highway funding. Frist also would like to wait until after the election to take a tough vote on raising the debt limit, one Republican source indicated.
Democrats didn’t reject the notion of leaving on Oct. 8 out of hand, but were quick to place the blame for most of backlog of legislation on Republicans.
“The Senate schedule is such a mess. I don’t know how between now and Oct. 8 they get anything of significance done,” said Senate Democratic Policy Committee Chairman Byron Dorgan (N.D.). “They’ve got to resolve most of these issues internally among Republicans.”
Frist outlined three priorities for the Senate this month, beginning with debate on the Homeland Security appropriations bill on Thursday. Frist did not mention the 11 other spending bills that have yet to see Senate floor action and which presumably will be folded into an omnibus spending bill.
Frist said the Homeland Security spending measure will set the stage for a month in which the Senate will be principally focused on national security issues. As part of that, Frist said he would push for confirmation of Rep. Porter Goss (R-Fla.) to be director of the CIA as well as passage of a measure to overhaul the organization of federal intelligence agencies. Frist also said he hoped to deal with a measure to reform the way Senate committees oversee the intelligence community.
Additionally, Frist highlighted the need to extend three popular tax cuts that are set to expire this year and indicated that he would continue to push back aggressively against Senate Democrats who have sought to block some of President Bush’s judicial nominees.
However, it was the omissions in the Senate GOP agenda that clearly irked some Republican Senators.
Lott delivered a passionate speech on the Senate floor Tuesday that implicitly criticized his party’s leadership for not only failing to pass the European sanctions bill, but for also falling short on a highway bill and an energy policy measure.
But Lott reserved some of his most biting comments for what he characterized as his leadership’s willingness to come back to Washington for a lame-duck session.
“How can it be stopped? I’ve had somebody ask me that in the leadership. ‘Well, my goodness, we’ve got these other things we’ve got to do. How can we avoid a lame-duck session?’” Lott said in a floor speech Tuesday.
Lott went on to suggest that Congress either pass an omnibus spending bill to fund the government for fiscal 2005 or pass a continuing resolution that would fund the government until February at the 2004 levels, before adjourning in October. Other issues could wait until next year, he indicated, if doing them before October is not possible.
“If we can’t get this stuff done in the next month, we’re not going to get it done in the two weeks before Christmas,” Lott added in an interview after his floor speech.
Lott also predicted that it would be difficult to prevent a lame-duck session from taking place because Democrats would likely be on board with Frist’s plan to leave Oct. 8, even if work remains to be done.
“Tom Daschle will want to get out of here. He doesn’t want to be in Washington, D.C., on Oct. 15. He’ll want to be in South Dakota,” Lott said of the Senate Minority Leader, who is in a tough re-election race against former Rep. John Thune (R-S.D.).
Meanwhile, House Majority Whip Roy Blunt (R-Mo.) indicated Tuesday on CNN that the House was also preparing for a lame- duck session. However, Blunt did not say when the House would recess for the election.