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Can Congress Finish Work in One Week? Unclear

Quack. Quack. They’re back, and it’s anybody’s guess for how long.

While GOP leaders had waxed optimistic about the ability of a reinvigorated Republican Congress to resolve in less than a week issues that have stumped them for months, there were fresh acknowledgements Monday that it may take longer than they originally thought. [IMGCAP(1)]

Indeed, as of today’s start of the lame-duck session, Republicans still cannot agree among themselves how to deal with a must-pass debt-limit increase as well as how to hold down spending in the nine remaining appropriations bills.

Plus, negotiators on a bill to implement the 9/11 commission’s recommendations are still refusing to declare their bill dead, even as rigor mortis appears to be setting in. Of course, the optimists will tell you that the bill to create a new national intelligence director is in the category of “not dead yet,” as one Senate Republican aide noted.

But things could always change, depending on how much capital President Bush decides to spend at an early morning breakfast with Congressional leaders Wednesday.

But more than anything else, it’s that pesky issue of keeping the government from shutting down that is the crux of most lame-duck sessions. And this one is no different.

“I don’t see any showstoppers. I think we can produce a product by late this week or early next week,” said Jon Scofield, spokesman for the House Appropriations Committee.

Yes, folks, you heard right. He said those dreaded words — “next week.”

Indeed, all signs point to either a weekend session or work during the week of Thanksgiving to finish up appropriations.

But Republicans — in perhaps the only glimmer of hope for an end to the 108th Congress — are only willing to acknowledge the possibility of work next week. A post-Turkey Day return, they say, is not in the cards.

“If you come back in December, then you’re here until Christmas,” warned John Feehery, spokesman for Speaker Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.). “The game plan is to get it done this week.”

As a sign of good faith, appropriators in the House and Senate have already begun drafting the noncontroversial parts of the omnibus spending bill.

Plus, they have a promising agreement to hold spending to the previously agreed-upon $821 billion cap — a cap which, it merits noting, the Senate exceeded by $8 billion.

Still, even the White House liked what the Senate did in adding funds to veterans’ health care, NASA and the struggling U.S. Postal Service. So in order to include more money for those projects, appropriators have generally agreed they’re going to have to have an across-the-board cut of less than 1 percent in other domestic priorities — at least those items that are not politically sensitive, such as homeland security and defense programs.

But not all nine spending bills will necessarily end up in the omnibus. An impasse over the energy and water appropriations bill has increased the chances that projects under its purview will simply be funded at the fiscal 2004 level, meaning that no new water-project earmarks would make it into law.

However, negotiators appeared to be making a last-ditch effort to resolve the key point of contention on the bill — namely, funding for the proposed nuclear waste repository at Yucca Mountain in Nevada. Incoming Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) has held the bill up because he opposes the government’s plan to send radioactive waste to the site.

In the meantime, the Senate may act as soon as today on a bill to increase the $7.4 trillion debt limit by about three-quarters of a trillion dollars. It’s estimated that the debt-limit hike will last the government at least another 10 months. At that point, the Treasury will be faced with defaulting on the national debt again and will require another boost to the debt ceiling.

By pushing the debt issue first, Senate Republican leaders appear to be trying to force the House to consider the issue as a stand-alone bill. The primary factor holding up passage of a debt-limit increase has been the House leadership’s desire to fold the controversial issue into the omnibus. By doing so, they could avoid a rebellion from within their ranks over the wisdom of having to repeatedly extend the government’s line of credit. In addition, Democrats in the House are likely to oppose the measure en masse as a protest of the GOP’s fiscal policies, creating the potential for the bill to fail on the House floor.

While House Republican leaders say that scenario is unlikely, they’d like to avoid finding out if they’re wrong.

On the Senate side, Appropriations Chairman Ted Stevens (R-Alaska) has so far been sticking to his promise to ranking member Robert Byrd (D-W.Va.) that the debt limit would not be wrapped into any spending bills.

As for the 9/11 commission implementation bill, word last week was that Hastert and Senate Governmental Affairs Chairwoman Susan Collins (R-Maine) — the Senate’s top Republican conferee — were huddling together looking for a way to bridge the impasse over the bill. But no deal has been forthcoming.

House conferees have been reluctant to allow any new national intelligence director to manage funding and personnel for intelligence agencies that have traditionally been run by the Pentagon. However, Senate negotiators have countered that the 9/11 commission was explicit in recommending that the director be able to coordinate intelligence agencies more easily, without going through the Defense secretary.

As of press time Monday night, Senate conferees were meeting to try to salvage the bill before Congress adjourns for the year.

“There is still hope that we can get this thing done before the end of the lame duck, so conferees are continuing to meet and negotiate,” said Jen Burita, Collins’ spokeswoman.

However, without an agreement by midweek, it appears highly unlikely that a conference report can be passed by both chambers and sent to the president.

Finally this week, there is the GOP’s problem of how to finish up this Congress’ business while planning giddily for the 109th Congress where the Republican ruling majorities will be increased thanks to victories on Nov. 2.

It will take careful planning to make sure that the House and Senate get their work done while also allowing Members to go to all those hello/goodbye dinners for new and retiring Members. Indeed, don’t expect a late night tonight, since Members will want to attend the 6:30 p.m. dinner honoring the incoming 109th Congress.

And on Wednesday, Republicans won’t want to miss the farewell dinner for retiring GOP Senators. They shouldn’t have much trouble getting there, given that Senate Republicans and Democrats have already agreed not to schedule votes from Wednesday afternoon until Thursday evening. That’s so Democratic Senators can attend former President Bill Clinton’s presidential library dedication ceremony at 10:30 a.m. Thursday in Little Rock, Ark.

With that kind of social schedule this week, it’s no wonder they’re not projecting to finish up until the weekend at the earliest.

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