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Hill Leaders Want Lame Duck to Just Fly By

House and Senate Republican leaders, eager to claim a new mandate following Tuesday’s sweeping Republican victories in the White House and Congress, plan to make quick work of the planned lame-duck session so they can start with a clean slate and newly invigorated majorities when the 109th Congress begins in January.

Indeed, Senate Majority Whip Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) predicted that the lame-duck session, set to begin Nov. 16, would not extend beyond the end of the month — echoing a theme expressed by many Democrats and Republicans who are exhausted by a two-year legislative battle over a wide range of domestic and foreign policy issues.

“I think both sides are going to want to keep it short,” McConnell said. “I don’t think any side is going to want to drag it out into December.”

And Democrats don’t expect to put up much resistance, after an election in which Republicans defeated the sitting Senate Minority Leader, while netting a four-seat gain in the Senate and a four-seat gain in the House.

“I don’t think anybody wants to stick around” Washington, said one dejected Senate Democratic aide. “Nobody even wants to look at the Republicans right now.”

Eric Ueland, deputy staff director to Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-Tenn.), said that if all goes well, Congress could be out “before Thanksgiving” on Nov. 25.

That would give Congress just 10 days to tackle the confounding issues for which it was unable to find resolution during the pre-election session.

Nine fiscal 2005 appropriations bills are still in limbo, given long-standing House and Senate differences over funding plans, and the Treasury Department announced again Wednesday that it needs Congress to raise the statutory debt limit by Nov. 18 to keep the government from defaulting on nearly $7.4 trillion of debt.

In addition, talks are continuing between House and Senate negotiators over a bill to implement the recommendations of the 9/11 commission and to reform the intelligence community. But some aides held out little hope for an agreement this year.

Principally, Congress must keep the government funded by either passing an omnibus spending bill or a continuing resolution, known as a CR, that would punt the issue until the next Congress.

Before President Bush decisively won the election Tuesday, passing a CR through February seemed like a distinct possibility. But because the resolution to the election was not as drawn-out as had been predicted, aides say the outgoing chairmen of the House and Senate Appropriations committees — respectively, Rep. Bill Young (R-Fla.) and Sen. Ted Stevens (R-Alaska) — have more incentive to finish their work before handing their gavels over to newcomers in the 109th. Both Young and Stevens are abiding by Republican-instituted term limits on committee chairmen.

“Each guy put in six years [as chairman] and doesn’t want it to end in frustration,” Ueland predicted.

But to reach an agreement, the Senate may have to trim its spending proposal, given the White House’s new strength following the election, said Bill Hoagland, an appropriations and budget adviser to Frist. The Senate liberally used emergency spending designations to break spending caps on this year’s appropriations bills by $8 billion.

“Emboldened a bit from last night, the president and the White House may be even more insistent that we not exceed the $821 billion [cap that] we agreed to,” Hoagland said.

But the Senate may also get pressure from House leaders to cut back on some programs.

“The Senate is going to have to give up some of its $8 billion of gimmicks,” said House Appropriations Committee spokesman Jon Scofield. Those gimmicks, he said, include using accounting maneuvers to shift $3.2 billion in Social Security payments from fiscal 2005 to fiscal 2006 and designating $1.2 billion in veterans’ medical spending as an emergency, off-budget expense.

In addition, both House and Senate Republicans were unable to prevent Democrats this year from attaching language to block the Bush administration from implementing new regulations that change overtime rules and allow more “outsourcing” of government work. Consequently, trying to rid the spending measures of those provisions is trickier.

Scofield noted, “Both are fairly difficult issues, but you’d think they’d become easier [to extract] since this administration just got reelected.”

The White House has threatened to veto any spending bill that includes either prohibition.

Meanwhile, raising the statutory debt limit proved nearly impossible earlier this year, with both Republicans and Democrats bristling at taking the politically unpopular, but fiscally necessary, vote.

Attempts to hide the debt limit increase in the budget resolution and appropriations bills have failed so far this year. But House and Senate leaders still appear to be looking for a place to insulate the debt ceiling from too much opposition in either chamber.

“There are several different places where it could be done,” Ueland said of the leadership’s options for the debt limit. “It’s too early yet to jump to conclusions about how it will be done.”

Indeed, Ueland said it is still unclear exactly how much the increase will be. An earlier proposal of increasing it by $690 billion would only insulate the government from default until September of next year, according to some reports.

While appropriations and the debt limit are must-pass measures, the intelligence reform measure could fall by the wayside if an agreement between House and Senate negotiators remains as elusive as it was in the three weeks before the election.

The 9/11 commissioners and some victims’ family groups pushed for an agreement and passage of the bill before the election, because they feared that any attempts to compromise would fade in a lame-duck session.

But Leslie Phillips, spokeswoman for key Democratic conferee Sen. Joe Lieberman (Conn.), said the Senate conferees “are still committed to getting this bill done before the end of the lame-duck session.”

Mark Preston contributed to this report.

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