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Done by Thanksgiving? Don’t Book Those Seats

It seems that no item of business, surprise announcement, controversy or natural disaster can shake the resolve of Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-Tenn.) to let his Senators go home by Thanksgiving.

Well, sort of.

Frist intends to let his colleagues go home to fill their bellies with turkey and stuffing until he has to call them back, presumably at some point in December, to finish up extraneous legislative business and, possibly, vote on Judge Samuel Alito’s nomination to the Supreme Court. [IMGCAP(1)]

One senior Senate GOP aide said that, after Thanksgiving, the Senate will likely “adopt an ‘up-periscope’

strategy, where we’ll be in and evaluating the possibility for action every few days. If there is significant material to work on, then we’ll arrange to call folks back at a convenient time.”

The Senate aide added, “We will not be in after Thanksgiving, day after day, hanging out and waiting. That is a recipe for legislative disaster on the floor, and [Senators’] attendance issues would make it a real challenge to know that, day-to-day, we have a firm majority over the minority.”

It remains to be seen whether Frist will acquiesce to the White House’s push to have Alito confirmed before the December holidays. Frist has left open the possibility of calling Members back for a floor vote on Alito, but Senate Democrats are already making noises that a month may not be enough time to thoroughly review Alito’s 15-year record on the 3rd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals. Instead, Democrats would like to see hearings on Alito pushed to January.

And it appears that so far, Frist is leaving the decision on when to begin hearings to Senate Judiciary Chairman Arlen Specter (R-Pa.), who is consulting with ranking member Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.).

Another factor at work: Too much legislative or nomination-related work in December would cut into the public relations duties that Senate Republican Conference Chairman Rick Santorum (Pa.) wants Members to do at home during that time.

In a letter to colleagues Monday, Santorum wrote, “As you arrange your schedules for your states for the December Recess, I encourage you to incorporate in your in-state meetings the following messages: 1) JOBS/Agenda Accomplishments, 2) Medicare Prescription Drugs Sign-Up, and 3) the Senate Anti-Poverty Agenda.”

In particular, Santorum wants Senators to hold at least “one roundtable discussion over the December recess with community and faith-based charities in your state” about the anti-poverty agenda, which includes providing tax credits for hiring low-income Americans, encouraging welfare mothers to get married, promoting more charitable giving and increasing the child tax credit, among other things.

Even though Frist still appears to be equivocating on when the Senate will formally adjourn, House Republican aides are relieved that he appears to have finally seen the light, given that House leaders, privately, have long said Frist’s goal to completely close up shop by Thanksgiving was unrealistic.

“It’s a smart idea, because we’re going to be busy in December,” said a House GOP leadership aide. In fact, House leaders are hoping to move an immigration bill focused on border security during the month of December, the aide said.

Still, House aides are skeptical of Frist’s insistence that Congress must finish most of its heavy lifting by Turkey Day. That would include completing a conference report on a highly controversial budget reconciliation measure, a Defense Department authorization bill, a tax cut package and any conference reports for spending bills that are ready within just three and a half weeks.

“It seems overly optimistic to say we could get [budget reconciliation] done before Thanksgiving,” said Angela Kuck, spokeswoman for House Budget Chairman Jim Nussle (R-Iowa).

Indeed, the House and Senate remain far apart in their approach to the budget reconciliation measure designed to reduce the deficit, with the Senate pushing a bill that would cut the deficit by $39 billion, while simultaneously spending $31 billion, and the House pursuing cuts of up to $50 billion with little additional spending.

The current Senate plan — to have the budget measure conferenced with the House by the end of next week — has always seemed impractical, even to Senate aides. While the Senate is set to pass its version by the end of this week, the House version won’t be on the floor until sometime next week, and aides expect extended debate.

Meanwhile, the budget reconciliation conference could be further complicated by the fact that GOP centrists in both chambers may have the ability to scuttle any bill they find objectionable, such as one they feel pares social services too much. In the House, that issue is especially complex because conservatives could also decide to withhold their votes from any reconciliation measure they feel doesn’t reduce the deficit enough.

Indeed, Republicans in both the House and Senate will need all of the centrist GOP votes they can muster, because almost all Democrats are opposed to the billions of dollars in cuts to Medicaid, agricultural subsidies and low-income housing programs. Indeed, one Senate Democratic aide said Republicans might get only one Democratic vote for their measure in the Senate, perhaps Sen. Ben Nelson (Neb.).

While budget reconciliation continues to pose a unique hurdle to Congressional adjournment, House and Senate appropriators continue to insist that they are on track to finish appropriations by Thanksgiving, with much of their work completed before the current stopgap government funding measure, also known as a continuing resolution, expires Nov. 18.

Indeed, the Senate is poised to clear the Agriculture appropriations conference report as early as today, while conference reports for the foreign operations spending bill as well as the science, State, Justice and Commerce appropriations measure could be filed this week as well, according to House and Senate appropriations sources.

That would leave five of the 11 annual spending bills left for the House and Senate to reconcile, along with two supplemental spending requests to pay for preparations for a possible outbreak of the Asian bird flu and to continue the recovery from Hurricane Katrina.

And House Appropriations Chairman Jerry Lewis (R-Calif.) and Senate Appropriations Chairman Thad Cochran (R-Miss.) have agreed on a precise schedule for having all the annual appropriations conference reports done by Nov. 18, according to Lewis spokesman John Scofield.

The foreign operations spending bill would be ready for the House floor on Thursday, while the Defense, military quality of life and science, State, Justice and Commerce conference reports would be readied for floor action next week.

The week of Nov. 14, conference reports on the Labor, Health and Human Services, and Education spending bill and the Transportation, Treasury, and Housing and Urban Development appropriations bill would be completed by Nov. 17. Otherwise, the House and Senate would vote on a short-term CR to keep the government running until those conference reports are ready.

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