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Will Holiday Shopping Fall Victim to Calendar?

With Thanksgiving just five weeks away, Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-Tenn.) and Speaker Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.) have their work cut out for them if they expect to hold to their mutual promise to finish legislative business and leave town by Nov. 18. [IMGCAP(1)]

But of course, some on Capitol Hill are already hearing the faint jingle of sleigh bells when the subject of Congress’ actual adjournment comes up. And there are plenty of reasons to doubt that Frist and Hastert will be able to bring that vow to fruition.

Indeed, Hastert’s decision to push an amendment to this year’s budget resolution calling for deeper cuts in both mandatory and discretionary spending programs could easily prove to be the primary stumbling block to a smooth and orderly adjournment before Thanksgiving.

The push for what House Republicans are calling the “spending restraint amendment” not only complicates the ability of the House to reach common ground with the Senate on already controversial cuts to mandatory programs such as Medicaid, Medicare and food stamps, but also has the potential to slam the brakes on any and all progress appropriators have made in reconciling fiscal 2006 spending bills. Three bills have already been sent to the president, meaning rescissions would likely have to be made to conform to any new discretionary cuts. Six bills are currently in House-Senate conference committees.

So far, however, appropriators on both sides of the Capitol appear unfazed by the notion of having to go back to the drawing board on all 11 appropriations bills.

Jenny Manley, spokeswoman for Senate Appropriations Chairman Thad Cochran (R-Miss.), said the prospect of additional spending cuts has not “slowed anything down at this point. But it’s obviously something we will eventually have to come to the table and discuss.”

Still, appropriators appear to be moving forward as if they will not have to revisit each bill, and their optimism is well-founded considering that Senate leaders have repeatedly indicated they have no intention of following the House’s lead in amending the budget. That means the House’s action would not be binding on the Senate.

Plus, appropriators say they are pretty much on track to finishing conference reports on those six spending bills and expect to wrap up negotiations on the Agriculture spending measure this week.

“There’s no reason why we can’t get everything we need to get done by the 18th of November,” said House Appropriations spokesman John Scofield.

Three more bills are awaiting Senate passage. The Transportation, Treasury and Housing measure should pass relatively easily this week, and the District of Columbia spending measure is expected to hitch a ride on that train. That leaves the most contentious bill — the Labor, Health and Human Resources, and Education spending bill — for last, but Senate aides said it could come up as soon as the chamber disposes of the Transportation bill this week. Frist will likely have to use procedural measures to prevent a filibuster when the measure comes up, however.

So despite fears that sugar plum fairies may appear before Congress disappears, it still may be possible for Congress to, at the very least, make sure the federal government is funded for the rest of the 2006 fiscal year (which started two weeks ago) by Turkey Day. But Republican leaders may have to punt more difficult issues to next year if they want to avoid coming back to town in December.

That could mean pushing off the big reconciliation fight until after the new year, a scenario that is not without precedent, some Congressional sources indicated.

A potentially protracted fight in the Senate over White House counsel Harriet Miers’ nomination to the U.S. Supreme Court — along with the fact that neither chamber is slated to begin floor action on reconciliation legislation until the first week of November at the earliest — could cause additional adjournment problems for Frist and Hastert.

In order to finish on time, both chambers would have to have deal with reconciliation on the floor the week of Halloween, resolve conferences involving 18 different House and Senate committees during the week of Nov. 7 and push through final passage the week before Thanksgiving.

Even if the two chambers weren’t miles apart in terms of how much they envision cutting from mandatory spending programs, that schedule would be a tall order. But the fact that the House is pushing to find as much as $50 billion in mandatory spending cuts this year, while the Senate was barely able to secure 51 votes in May for its $35 billion target, makes that all the more difficult.

The Senate may end up coming up with slightly more than $35 billion in savings, but it will be nowhere near the $50 billion the House is gunning for, one Senate GOP leadership aide said.

“Is it impossible? No. Is it pushing it? Absolutely,” said the aide. “There are reasons we may be here after Thanksgiving anyway, considering we’ll be dealing with a [Supreme Court] judge.”