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Leftovers From 108th Remain on Hill’s Back Burner

While President Bush is set to lay out a whole new “honey-do” list for Congress in Wednesday’s State of the Union address, leftovers from the 108th Congress are still haunting Capitol Hill.

Take, for example, the mammoth highway authorization bill. While in years past such a measure might have been fairly labeled the No Pork Left Behind Act, the White House last year used the bill as a way to show Bush’s determination to rein in Congressional spending. Now, lawmakers are hoping the absence of an upcoming election will help them pave as much of America as possible with asphalt.[IMGCAP(1)]

Even if Bush again threatens to flex his never-used veto pen, Congressional Republicans could put their recent willingness to buck the White House to work by simply opting to override.

“In the House and Senate, we can override a veto very easily,” said a House GOP aide.

Of course, that would require the House and Senate Republican leadership’s blessing, but given the fact that the highway bill typically enjoys broad bipartisan support, there’s not really a question of whether the two-thirds vote needed would be there.

Bush infuriated Members last year by demanding that they keep the highway bill to a mere $256 billion over six years, even though more expensive House and Senate bills would not have required any deficit spending and were paid for with offsets.

While no one is talking about a replay of House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee’s $375 billion bill this year, something along the lines of last year’s $318 billion Senate-passed bill appears to be the goal. But that could change depending on how much money Bush proposes to spend on highway infrastructure in his fiscal 2006 budget, which is to be unveiled next week.

The White House already gave its tacit blessing to a $299 billion bill after last year’s election, but Senate conferees, having lost Sen. John McCain’s (R-Ariz.) support for the bill, couldn’t find a Democrat to support the package, a Senate Republican aide said.

Meanwhile, instead of working on a six-year bill, both the House panel and the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee appear to be leaning toward a five-year bill that ends in 2009 — a move that would allow them to pack the same amount of money into a shorter amount of time.

Both the House and Senate committees hope to have a bill ready for the floor by mid-February or early March.

Then there’s energy. While Americans appear to be using less gasoline due to high fuel costs, Members on both sides of the aisle are still beating the drum for national energy policy legislation that would increase oil and natural gas production and provide incentives for developing renewable fuels. But because Republicans have tended to favor production of fossil fuels over conservation and renewables, the same old fights from years past appear ready to slow this giant down as well.

While opponents of drilling in Alaska’s Arctic National Wildlife Refuge acknowledge that they have an uphill fight this year, there’s no indication that they won’t be a force to be reckoned with once again.

The Senate now appears to have the 51 votes needed to protect ANWR drilling from a filibuster, by putting it in the annual budget resolution. But House GOP moderates are mounting their own campaign to stop the rider from being included on their side.

Rep. Nancy Johnson (R-Conn.) has been circulating a letter asking mostly moderate Republicans to oppose including ANWR in the budget resolution. So far about 15 Members have signed on.

Depending on the eventual number of signatories, it’s feasible that moderate Republicans could put a kink in the GOP’s ANWR plans.

“It’s important enough for it not to go down without a fight,” said Elizabeth Wenk, spokeswoman for Rep. Mike Castle (R-Del.), who is supporting Johnson’s efforts. “Our basic point is you just can’t let it happen.”

But given the relative ease with which most moderate House Republicans have been convinced to stand down in recent Congresses, it remains to be seen whether this blocking effort will stick until the joint House-Senate conference report is passed.

Meanwhile, Senate Energy and Natural Resources Chairman Pete Domenici (R-N.M.) is still shying away from including in his energy bill a controversial provision designed to insulate some gasoline-additive makers from lawsuits.

Pushed by House Majority Leader Tom DeLay (R-Texas) and House Energy and Commerce Chairman Joe Barton (R-Texas), the provision to protect the makers of MTBE, a gasoline additive that has widely contaminated groundwater, caused the bipartisan Senate filibuster of the energy bill in the fall of 2003.

If the votes fall along the same lines as they did in 2003, opponents of the MTBE provision, including several Northeastern Republicans, still have a shot at preventing it from becoming law.

Nevertheless, Domenici hopes to start drafting and releasing bill language in March. Barton expects to take up his version in mid-February, a spokeswoman said.

After two years of temporary extensions, Congress still faces the task of reauthorizing the 1996 Welfare to Work bill, which required states to reduce their welfare rolls by helping recipients find jobs.

The fight has primarily been in the Senate, where moderate Republicans, including Sen. Olympia Snowe (Maine), have demanded that the government pay more in child-care expenses for caregivers who are forced to work. Last year, Snowe’s amendment to increase child-care funding from $1 billion to $6 billion was the only amendment adopted on the Senate floor before the whole process broke down under partisan pressure.

Other major challenges this year include Democratic opposition to provisions requiring welfare recipients to work more hours per week and to Bush’s desire to promote marriage and “responsible fatherhood” among welfare families.

But that’s not all, folks. Both the House and Senate are dead set on passing their legal reform agenda, starting next week in the Senate with a bill to send more class-action suits to federal courts. Even though the bill has more than the 60 votes needed to overcome a filibuster, it’s in for a potentially bumpy ride as consumer groups and trial lawyers pull out all the stops to defeat it.

Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-Tenn.) and Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) appear to have agreed to keep the debate limited to relevant, or germane, amendments, based on their statements last week. Previous attempts to bring the bill up threatened to devolve into a menagerie of unrelated proposals, such as raising the minimum wage.

Still, opponents will likely bring up tough-call amendments, such as one to make sure federal courts do not summarily reject class-action cases that involve laws of more than one state and one to exempt civil rights cases and wage-hour disputes from the confines of the bill.

If Senate Republicans can beat back those amendments, the House may very well clear the Senate’s bipartisan version will little debate.

No word yet on when exactly Senate Republicans plan to bring up a bill to limit damages in medical malpractice cases. Senate Democrats are expected to wage a much more ferocious and united fight against that one.

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