Last Wednesday morning, as House Republicans met for their weekly conference at the Capitol Hill Club and as the Senate’s presiding officer gaveled the chamber into session, dozens of lobbyists gathered at the Watergate headquarters of lobbying firm Blank Rome to discuss a topic that Members of Congress only whisper about: the lame duck.
In public, the leaders of the House and Senate speak of the dreaded wrap-up session following the Election Day as if it were a distant apparition. But for lobbyists and public relations strategists, the phantom is real indeed.
“We are preparing our clients for the possibility that there may or may not be an omnibus” spending bill this year, said former Rep. Susan Molinari (R-N.Y.), now a lobbyist with The Washington Group. “If there is a lame duck, it is all about how to make sure that you are in the right spot in line.”
At Wednesday’s meeting at the Watergate, Molinari addressed about 50 lobbyists and public relations specialists who assembled in a conference room overlooking the Potomac River as part of a regular meeting of Women in Government Relations.
“In this environment, anything can happen,” Molinari told the crowd. “So it’s all about constantly monitoring, making sure you are holding your place in line” in case there is an opening to add a lucrative provision into the massive year-end spending bill — or keeping something out.
Molinari’s outlook is echoed in lobbying shops across Washington.
“We are advising our clients that there is likely to be a lame duck and that we think an omnibus [spending bill], the FSC-ETI [corporate-tax legislation] and the highway bill could play out,” said Rich Tarplin of Timmons & Co.
Tarplin noted that the Congressional schedule is already packed tight in the lead-up to the elections, leaving no room for measures that GOP leaders need, or wish, to complete.
“If you look at what’s on the agenda, it’s filled with a few appropriations bills, extending tax credits for families and the 9/11 reforms,” Tarplin said, referring to Congressional efforts to overhaul the country’s intelligence infrastructure. “That’s a lot to finish in the time that’s remaining before the election.”
In laying out pre-election goals for the party, the White House has kept the agenda simple: Finish the 9/11 reforms, complete the Homeland Security spending bill and extend tax breaks that are set to expire soon.
At this stage, so soon before an election, it’s hard for lobbyists to prognosticate Congressional schedules. Even the smallest changes in Capitol Hill’s balance of power can force major recalibrations of strategy, as when the Republicans, after a majority-Democratic hiatus, reclaimed their Senate majority in 2002.
Moreover, lobbyists who have toiled for two years to win passage of their priorities don’t want to have to start from scratch in a new Congress.
Another key variable that suggests an early pre-election exit: the South Dakota Senate race. Lobbyists assume Senate Minority Leader Tom Daschle (D), who faces a rough re-election bid, will be eager to return home to campaign — and that his Democratic colleagues will be eager to help him do so.
Daschle doesn’t want to remain in Washington while his GOP challenger, former Rep. John Thune, brands him an “obstructionist.” But GOP Senators also have an incentive to end legislative matters early so they too can return to the campaign trail.
President Bush’s recent surge in national and battleground polls has caused added churning among lobbyists laying plans for the months ahead.
With projections suggesting an election that returns Bush and the Republican Congress back to office, some lobbyists believe that GOP leaders will feel more comfortable moving high-priority bills to the post-election period — or the next Congress altogether.
The reasoning is that Republican leaders would feel less pressure to move quickly on their agenda if they believed they would still be in control of Congress and the White House after the Nov. 2 balloting.
“Depending on the election outcome, you could have a very short lame duck or a very robust lame duck,” one Republican lobbyist said. But, he added, “I guarantee you that most lobbyists in town are planning for after the election right now, and not for anything that might happen in the next few weeks.”
The spending bills top the list of items that would likely be kicked forward to a lame-duck session. To date, only one of the 13 spending bills — Defense — has been completed.
But lobbyists also cite other legislation — including terrorism-risk insurance, postal reform and corporate taxation — as front-burner items that are likely to make it to a lame-duck agenda. At the same time, the assumption exists among lobbyists that passage of the much sought-after highway bill will come more easily without the pressure of the presidential election tying Bush’s hands.
The president, under strong pressure from fiscal conservatives to hold down spending, has placed a firm ceiling of $256 billion on the highway legislation. Democrats have dug in their heels at $318 billion. And a House-Senate conference that has been negotiating a compromise bill has gotten no closer to the president’s number than $299 billion.
Still, some lobbyists say they wouldn’t place much faith in the specter of a comprehensive legislative agenda taking shape right after the elections.
Gary Andres of the Dutko Group sees Congress passing a continuing resolution on spending in mid-October that expires in mid-November, when lawmakers are slated to return anyway for their leadership elections.
At that point, Andres sees Congress completing work on the omnibus, as well as the corporate-tax bill and the highway legislation. But after that, attendance could become a problem for GOP leaders.
“I don’t see the appetite to stay here ’til Christmas,” Andres said. “I think it would be a pretty short lame duck.”