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Blunt Outlines Packed Agenda

With lawmakers set to pass a continuing resolution this week keeping them in session at least through Nov. 18, the House will spend the next seven weeks working through a complicated budgetary puzzle.

Congressional leaders must finish appropriations bills and push through a complex reconciliation process while at the same time funneling more money toward Hurricane Katrina cleanup — and figuring out how to pay for it.

First up is the CR, which will start the clock ticking on the remaining weeks of a session that, by this weekend, will already have sailed past its originally scheduled adjournment date.

“We’re basically backing everything up from Nov. 18, which is the Friday before Thanksgiving,” House Majority Whip Roy Blunt (R-Mo.) said in an interview with Roll Call editors and reporters Monday. “We could very well be here that weekend. … We think it takes about five weeks to do reconciliation, assuming it takes a couple of weeks to conference it, so we start reconciliation on Oct. 17 or 18 and plan to finish it by Nov. 18.”

House and Senate GOP leaders met with both chambers’ Appropriations Committee chairmen last week and agreed that the continuing resolution for each individual spending bill would be pegged to the lowest of three numbers — last year’s House-passed version, last year’s Senate version or the final version signed by President Bush.

That relatively unusual strategy should allow the leadership to placate conservatives by cutting costs in the short-term while also putting pressure on lawmakers to hurry up and finish the remaining bills.

“It would save some money, and it would also encourage those who don’t want the lowest of those three numbers … to move toward a final number,” Blunt said.

At the same time, House leaders will keep one eye on the White House in expectation of receiving another request for supplemental Katrina aid to bolster the $62 billion Congress already has appropriated.

The timing of such a request and its eventual passage may well be linked to the reconciliation process, as Republican leaders hope to pair the new expenditure with a round of spending cuts to avoid further accusations of fiscal irresponsibility.

“If there’s another supplemental, I’d like to see it done very close to reconciliation or maybe even in conjunction with reconciliation, so it’s a visible pay-for,” Blunt said.

Only after the House has passed a multibillion-dollar reconciliation package will the leadership turn its full attention to the second part of the process: cutting taxes.

“We haven’t had any serious discussion yet of the second step,” Blunt said. “You have to do reconciliation for the spending before you do the taxes and we’ve been focused totally on the spending.”

While reconciliation was on the agenda well before Katrina struck, Blunt said the disaster certainly changed the political dynamic surrounding the process of making difficult cuts in mandatory programs such as Medicaid.

“Katrina sort of works for and against this,” Blunt said. “It works against it in that so many of the victims of Katrina were poor and would benefit from the mandatory programs. It works for doing something because I really do think there’s a desire both with our Members and in the country to try to find some ways to pay for some of the unanticipated costs of Katrina.”

In the shorter term, Blunt said, “the biggest thing we plan to do in the next couple of weeks” is to pass a new round of energy legislation. Both the Energy and Commerce and Resources committees are working on measures to bolster oil refinery and natural gas capabilities.

Blunt said the tentative plan calls for bringing the new energy package to the House floor during the last two days of next week.

The House also is expected to pass legislation soon targeted at crystal methamphetamine, which has been widely covered in the press in recent months.

“I think in the short-term future we’re likely to spend a couple of days on meth,” said Blunt, who has co-authored a meth-related bill with Sen. Jim Talent (R-Mo.). “During August, the national media sort of discovered meth in a national way for the first time.”

After the Columbus Day recess, the House will return to tackle the reconciliation process while also beginning work on the politically charged topic of immigration reform.

Given the level of disagreement on the issue within the House GOP Conference, Republican leaders believe they must tackle the problem piece by piece.

“I think the House is more inclined to go on a multiple-step solution than the Senate, but we ought to start those steps, because you know maybe [the Senate] wants to conclude this in one grand package,” Blunt said. “That doesn’t mean we can’t go ahead and start our work. The majority of Republicans in the House believe border security [should come] first, then enforcement, then what we do about a viable guest-worker program.”