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108th: The Final Days

Here we go again, folks.

Congress finds itself just three weeks away from the statutory deadline for passing new spending bills. It’s four weeks from its own self-imposed target adjournment date. And it’s seven weeks from a contentious presidential election.

With all three factors simultaneously at work, it’s anybody’s guess what Members will be able to achieve in the final days of the 108th Congress.

[IMGCAP(1)] On the one hand, the deadline pressure often forces Congress to get its work done. On the other hand, presidential elections have a way of making many Members from both parties hit the brakes — hoping that a win on Nov. 2 will give them more leverage for their policy proposals in the next session of Congress.

One thing seems almost certain, however: This Congress will be returning to Washington following the election, most likely in a last-ditch attempt to pass the 2005 spending bills and to take a politically uncomfortable vote to raise the national debt limit.

I’ll Gladly Pay You Tuesday

In fact, the politics of raising the debt limit might be the issue that delays many measures, especially appropriations, until after the election.

Fortunately for worried House and Senate GOP leaders, the Treasury Department says it can wait until mid- to late November for Congress to act. After that, the United States may begin defaulting on its bills.

Republicans in both chambers want to wait until after the election for a debt-limit vote because they fear Democrats will use the vote to highlight what they say are President Bush’s failed fiscal policies and penchant for deficit spending.

Republicans also must grapple with the fact that many in their ranks — both centrists and conservatives — oppose raising the debt limit and would rather pursue policies that pay down the national debt.

House leaders are less likely than their Senate counterparts to get the necessary votes to increase the debt limit. That’s why, in the past, the House has avoided a direct vote on the issue by deeming the debt limit increased when the yearly budget is passed by both chambers. But because the Senate failed to pass the bicameral budget this year, the House will be forced to take a separate vote.

Because the debt-limit vote is almost certain to occur after the election, the delay is likely to spill over to appropriators, who will have little impetus to finish their work before the Sept. 30 statutory deadline.

Besides, they’re already far behind in their duties. Only one of the 13 must-pass spending bills has made it to the president’s desk. The House is set to finish 12 of the 13 bills by the end of this week, while the Senate will presumably have passed just two, or possibly three.

And then, of course, there’s the matter of cobbling all the spending bills together into an omnibus appropriations bill.

Even though both House and Senate appropriators have put on a brave face and vowed to move new spending bills with increases for most executive branch departments, Members on both sides of the Capitol appear increasingly resigned to the notion of simply passing a continuing resolution, or “CR,” that will fund the government at this year’s levels until at least February of 2005, and maybe longer.

After all, Members and aides point out, that’s what they did last year.

The only question is whether they’ll pass that CR before or after the election.

IQ Test

Meanwhile, Congress is enraptured by the prospect of actually doing something about how the United States gathers intelligence on terrorists and foreign countries, following a blistering report by the 9/11 commission that pointed a finger at all levels of government in the failure to prevent the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.

Plus, doing something, most figure, might actually help them at the polls in November.

Though initially skeptical of implementing the 9/11 commission’s recommendations to overhaul the federal intelligence community, both House and Senate Republican leaders are finally on board — sort of.

Though bipartisan bills exist in both chambers to implement all 41 recommendations of the commission, leaders in the House and Senate have rejected that approach, preferring instead to implement just the recommendations to create a National Counterterrorism Center and a national intelligence director with authority over all 15 intelligence agencies, including those in the Defense Department.

Both Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-Tenn.) and House Majority Leader Tom DeLay (R-Texas) predicted they’ll have intelligence reform bills on the floor of their chambers by the last week of September or the first week of October.

The Senate also plans to expedite confirmation of Rep. Porter Goss (R-Fla.) to be the new director of the Central Intelligence Agency, Frist said last week. But it’s unclear how long that floor debate would last.

It’s Taxing

Congressional leaders also know they can’t go home until they extend three expiring tax cuts that primarily affect the middle class: the 10 percent income-tax bracket, the $1,000 per child tax credit, and tax relief for married couples.

Back in July, centrist Republicans in the Senate, including Sen. Olympia Snowe (R-Maine), tried to force negotiators to offset the cost of the tax cuts with spending restraints elsewhere. But when that effort hit a roadblock in the House, the whole package was put off until now.

That’s exactly what Senate Finance Chairman Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) had hoped would happen anyway. Grassley had resisted the White House’s insistence on trying to pass the three cuts in July because he said Republicans who didn’t want to pay for the tax cuts — including himself — would have more leverage closer to the election.

It looks like Grassley’s prediction was right on. Centrists such as Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) have already indicated that they’ll support extending the tax cuts without offsets. That makes it politically impossible for Members like Snowe to stick to their guns.

In short, it looks like the White House will get their wish to extend all three tax cuts for five years, without having to pay for them.

In addition, Congressional GOP leaders are looking to pass a much more ambitious international corporate-tax bill designed to end European sanctions against U.S. goods.

With tariffs at 11 percent on some U.S. products, there is heavy pressure to relieve U.S. manufacturers. But the House still hasn’t even appointed conferees to the joint House-Senate negotiating team, due to fears that Democrats will be able to use procedural maneuvers to force embarrassing votes to “instruct conferees.”

As an embarrassment tool, motions to instruct are pretty esoteric, but sometimes they end up making news — something Republicans are right to fear, especially since provisions of the corporate-tax bill run the gamut from attempting to cut taxes for U.S. manufacturers to bailing out tobacco farmers.

Highway to Hell

While both DeLay and Frist expressed optimism last week that House and Senate negotiators could come to an agreement on a mammoth six-year highway funding bill, things began breaking down by the end of the week.

Reports that Senate Environment and Public Works Chairman James Inhofe (R-Okla.) had agreed to a $299 billion bill outraged Democrats, who said he had reneged on a promise to consult with the minority before agreeing to anything.

Sen. Jim Jeffords (I-Vt.), the ranking member on the Environment panel, said in a statement Friday, “I am afraid on its current course this bill is headed toward a dead end.”

But never fear, there is still talk of passing a more modest one-year authorization bill that would allow at least some orange cones to go up on roads across America.

Same-Sex Marriage, Again

But that’s not all, folks. The House has plans to follow the Senate’s lead in trying to pass a constitutional amendment banning gay marriage. DeLay said last week to expect that vote the week of Sept. 20th or 27.

This week, the House is going to vote on curbing what Republicans term “frivolous” lawsuits. They’re hoping the issue will garner presidential election coverage given that the Democrats’ vice presidential nominee, Sen. John Edwards (N.C.), used to be a big-time trial lawyer.

Frist also said he hopes to return to the issue of lawsuit reform by bringing back to the Senate floor a measure to send most class-action suits to federal courts. But given all the other things Frist has laid out, it’s doubtful that will happen.

More likely are a few more votes on President Bush’s judicial nominees. Senate Republicans are eager to try to hammer home Democrats’ opposition to many judicial appointments in advance of the election.

Ben Pershing contributed to this report.

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