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Iraq Measure Only One of Many Left to Finish

Congressional Democrats hope to mostly clear their plates before leaving in five weeks for the Memorial Day recess, hoping to exit with an impressive assortment of accomplishments to send to the president for his signature — or for his veto pen. [IMGCAP(1)]

At least one measure already is one step closer to a veto, as House and Senate negotiators agreed Monday on a compromise $124 billion Iraq supplemental spending bill that will be on both chambers’ floors later this week.

But even with that step completed, it remains to be seen whether Democrats’ eyes will be bigger than their stomachs as they aim to pass two — or possibly three — versions of the supplemental bill, a budget conference report, legislation dealing with energy efficiency, a stem-cell research bill, a sweeping overhaul of the nation’s immigration laws, and their “innovation” agenda, among other things, before exiting the stage.

To succeed, particularly in the Senate where one Senator can throw the entire chamber off course, the stars will have to be in near-perfect alignment, and the chances for bipartisan cooperation on many of the items may be remote.

Even before this push for accomplishments begins, Senate Republicans pooh-poohed Democratic efforts, saying the majority already has abdicated its biggest priority, funding troops in Iraq.

“Democrat leaders believe that spending 77-plus days on a war supplemental gives them enough cover to hide a dismal legislative record,” said Ryan Loskarn, spokesman for the Senate Republican Conference. “They’ve dragged out the troop funding debate to camouflage a very short list of accomplishments. They have yet to learn that a majority is judged by its ability to get things done, not just talk a lot.”

Meanwhile, Senate Democratic aides said much about that chamber’s agenda was still in flux as Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) continued mulling what to bring up after this week’s debate on a bill to promote “innovation” by encouraging math and science education and the first iteration of the Iraq bill.

Aides acknowledged, for example, that even though Reid has said repeatedly that he wants to bring up an energy bill before Memorial Day, the exact vehicle has yet to be identified. It could be a bill to increase energy efficiency in federal buildings, a measure promoting biofuels, legislation dealing with carbon sequestration from power plants, or any of myriad legislation wending its way through the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee.

Also on the short list for Senate consideration next week and the week after are bills dealing with the Food and Drug Administration, the Water Resources and Development Act reauthorization, and a budget conference report. But as one Senate leadership aide noted, that all depends on whether Bush vetoes the Iraq War spending bill.

Monday evening, House and Senate negotiators completed the first conference report on the war spending bill that President Bush has vowed to veto because it includes language requiring him to shift his strategy in Iraq with a goal of bringing soldiers home by next April.

And though Democrats are giving lip service to the notion that their war spending bill has a chance of being signed, no one actually thinks the president will retreat on his promise to torpedo the measure. Once that veto happens, Democrats will be under increased pressure to turn another conference report around within weeks — certainly before they leave for Memorial Day.

The second iteration is likely to include, at the very least, language setting benchmarks for the Iraqi government to meet to ensure continued U.S. assistance — but Bush might veto that as well, putting Congressional Democrats in a quandary as to what their Plan C is.

All that maneuvering, of course, could detract from the other issues they hope to accomplish before summer begins.

Stacey Bernards, spokeswoman for House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-Md.), said Democrats hope to send the president three other bills before leaving town — stem-cell legislation, a minimum-wage hike and the innovation bill.

Like the war spending bill, Bush has vowed to veto the stem-cell research measure because it would allow expanded federal funding for research on human embryos, which would be destroyed in the process. However, if Bush signs the minimum-wage and “innovation” bills, as is more likely than not, Democrats could claim they are batting .500 on major legislation this work period.

The minimum-wage bill currentlyis included in the war spending bill, but because of the veto threat, Democratic leaders also likely will move it separately to the president.

Bernards added that the House agenda for the next five weeks would include “putting priority on national security legislation as well as the nuts and bolts of making the government function for the people.”

That includes House action on reauthorizations for the Homeland Security and Defense departments, a lobbying reform bill, the budget conference, fiscal 2008 appropriations and an intelligence operations bill.

If they want to save face before the House Appropriations Committee starts without them, House and Senate Budget negotiators need to have their differing budget blueprints reconciled before May 15. After that, the Appropriations panel is allowed to begin moving spending bills without a budget framework.

One House Democratic leadership aide said the plan is to complete the conference before May 15, but aides to both panels said it is unclear when the House will get the ball rolling and appoint conferees. The House is required to move first in getting the conference ball rolling.

Reid also continues to say that an immigration bill will come to the Senate floor May 14, but questions abound about whether such a measure will be ready by that point.

Democratic and Republican aides said bipartisan negotiations are continuing with the White House on a bill that can garner enough support for Senate passage and overcome a potential filibuster.

“Sen. Kennedy is optimistic that soon we will have legislation in the Senate that strikes the right balance between protecting our security, strengthening our economy and enacting laws that uphold our humanity,” said Laura Capps, spokeswoman for key immigration negotiator Sen. Edward Kennedy (D-Mass.). “No agreements have been made in terms of the process, timing or specifics of the provisions but the negotiations continue. Everyone agrees that our system is broken and this is the year that it must be fixed.”

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