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State Dept. Fight Just Beginning of a Busy Spring

While the House and Senate are expected to get off to a slow start this week, the next eight weeks of legislative activity promise to deliver an internal GOP nail-biter on the budget resolution and partisan squabbles over everything from abortion and judicial nominations to prisoner abuse and immigration policy.

[IMGCAP(1)]With the Senate set to start debating today a State

Department authorization bill and the House tackling noncontroversial measures until Thursday, most Congressional activity this week will take place off the floor, as budget writers in each chamber try to reconcile their radically disparate resolutions and Republicans and Democrats hold dueling press conferences on yet-to-be-introduced proposals to overhaul Social Security.

Senate GOP aides acknowledge that the State Department bill, which is often beset by the desires of ideologues on both sides hoping to make a statement to the world, will likely not pass by the end of the week. If it does, the measure is likely to become hopelessly mired in intraparty disputes between House conservatives and Senate GOP pragmatists. But it serves as a useful exercise nonetheless, considering that the Senate doesn’t have anything else to do until next week when it will turn its attention to an $80 billion-plus supplemental war spending bill.

Meanwhile, the House will bide its time today and Wednesday adopting nonbinding resolutions on issues such as the life of the late Georgian Prime Minister Zurab Zhvania and passing lower-profile bills like the Mortgage Servicing Clarification Act and the Native American Housing Enhancement Act of 2005.

On Thursday, however, the House is expected to turn its attention to the Senate-passed bankruptcy overhaul bill. GOP leaders hope to pass it without amendment so it can go directly to the president’s desk and avoid what would likely be a painfully drawn-out House-Senate conference.

Meanwhile, House and Senate budget negotiators have already begun trying to sort through the easy issues on the budget resolution. While budget writers don’t expect many problems with reconciling a $5.4 billion difference in discretionary spending caps and a $23 billion difference on cutting taxes, the $51 billion gap between the House and Senate on cuts to mandatory programs, such as Medicaid and agriculture subsidies, is already proving to be a big sticking point.

Indeed, the House has proposed $68 billion in mandatory spending cuts, including as much as $20 billion from Medicaid, the government-run health insurance program for the poor. The Senate originally asked for $15 billion in cost savings from Medicaid, but that cut was erased on the floor with the help of all Democrats and seven centrist Republicans. That left the overall amount of mandatory cuts in the Senate’s budget at a relatively meager $17 billion.

Those same Senate GOP centrists have penned a letter to Senate Budget Chairman Judd Gregg (R-N.H.) and House Budget Chairman Jim Nussle (R-Iowa) asking that the conference abide by the Senate’s wishes and not seek savings or cuts in Medicaid funding this year. The seven, however, stopped short of threatening to block final passage of a budget resolution conference report if it contains cuts to Medicaid.

Not to be outdone, word is that House conservatives determined to see mandatory spending shrink are in the opposite camp — if budget negotiators agree to exempt Medicaid from cuts and/or have an overall mandatory spending cut number that is far below the House’s recommended $68 billion, they may not vote for the final budget package.

A senior Senate GOP aide predicted that House and Senate negotiators could possibly compromise on $10 billion in cuts to Medicaid, but warned that that would still leave a nearly $30 billion gap between the mandatory cuts requested by the House and Senate.

Separately, House GOP centrists have been trying to flex their muscles by opposing the inclusion of language that would allow oil exploration and drilling in Alaska’s Arctic National Wildlife Refuge in the budget resolution. The House did not assume a drilling bill would pass in its budget resolution, but the Senate budget includes it in an effort to protect the plan from a likely Senate filibuster.

If the House refuses to include ANWR assumptions in the budget conference report, it could mean death for the proposal in the Senate this year.

Meanwhile, Senate debate on the supplemental war spending bill could drag on for two weeks, according to one well-placed Senate GOP aide.

If that prediction is right, that leaves precious little time for House and Senate conferees to get the war spending bill to the president by the end of April, as the White House has requested.

Indeed, fights over immigration law and torture policy, among countless other controversial issues, are likely to crop up on the Senate floor and in conference.

Even though Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-Tenn.) has said he doesn’t want to follow the House’s lead in attaching controversial immigration law changes to the supplemental, the issue of denying illegal immigrants drivers’ licenses as well as a plan to finish a border fence along the U.S.-Mexico border could come up as amendments. Plus, Sen. Larry Craig (R-Idaho) could use the opportunity to press for an amendment making it easier to hire foreigners as agricultural workers, even though many in his own party oppose that proposal.

Additionally, Sen. Edward Kennedy (D-Mass.) said Democrats were likely to offer several amendments calling for accountability in the various prisoner abuse scandals that have plagued military-run prisons in Iraq and at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.

Meanwhile, House and Senate leaders hope to have a budget resolution conference report on the floor of both chambers by the end of the month, so as not to overshoot by too much the April 15 statutory deadline for a budget.

While the Senate mulls the supplemental, House GOP leaders are formulating plans for a variety of red-meat issues and leftover policy proposals from the 108th Congress. On tap is a bill requiring doctors who perform abortions to notify women of the pain the procedure may cause a fetus and a measure mandating parental consent for minors to travel across state lines for abortions.

The Senate may also take up the “fetal pain” issue, gun manufacturer liability, and the mammoth highway funding bill in the next two months, said Frist spokeswoman Amy Call.

The House Energy and Commerce Committee has plans this week to tackle an energy policy bill, and House floor action could come this month. However, the bill is likely to contain a contentious provision exempting the makers of the gasoline additive methyl tertiary butyl ether from lawsuits. The Senate rejected that provision in the past.

And last but certainly not least, Senators on both sides of the aisle are waiting with baited breath for Frist to drop the judicial nomination bomb in his push to end Democratic filibusters of a handful of the president’s judicial nominees.

While conservative activists have been pushing leadership to move forward with the so-called “nuclear option” as soon as possible, Frist has instead opted to move what aides call can-pass legislative items, and the coming weeks will likely focus on must-pass items like the budget resolution and the supplemental. If the judicial issue comes to a head, it would be at the end of April at the earliest, but more likely some time in May or June.

Paul Kane contributed to this report.

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