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Three Weeks and Several Bills Left Before Break

It may be three weeks until Memorial Day, but Congressional Democrats already are engaged in the legislative frenzy that traditionally precedes a much-needed recess. [IMGCAP(1)]

Intent on having more than just a vetoed war spending bill to tout to constituents during the weeklong Memorial Day break, Democrats this week are pressing legislation on a number of fronts that could help them make the case they are indeed “governing.” That includes measures that appeal to home-state interests,

show they can set priorities for the nation’s finances, and oversee military and homeland security needs, among other things.

After finishing a bill to reauthorize drug user fees at the Food and Drug Administration, the Senate is set to turn to more parochial concerns in the form of the Water Resources and Development Act, which authorizes Army Corps of Engineers water projects and is known for being a magnet for pork-barrel projects.

But Senate Republican leaders are not expected to ask their minions to take a party position on the WRDA legislation. After all, they’d probably see mass defections if they tried, because the bill is larded up with a piece — or pieces — of pork for just about everyone in the chamber.

Still, the GOP’s self-appointed “pork-busters” — such as Sens. Jim DeMint (S.C.), Tom Coburn (Okla.) and, if he can be pulled off the presidential campaign trail, John McCain (Ariz.) — likely will be out in force on the floor attempting to embarrass Senators with laughable or questionable water projects while trying to get the provisions stricken.

“The WRDA bill shows that the Congressional earmark favor factory hasn’t been shut down, just turned over to new management,” said Coburn spokesman John Hart. “Why does Louisiana need a lavish new visitors’ center when [Hurricane] Katrina victims are still in temporary housing?”

Besides a potential Coburn amendment striking the Louisiana visitors’ center project, another Senate GOP aide said “fiscal hawks” will push amendments to give the corps the authority to prioritize projects, allow them to de-authorize some plans, and permit them to set up a system that distributes funds based on need and merit.

“There’s waste in this bill every year because it’s based on politics, not merit. Congress lets a few politicians funnel the money wherever they please,” the aide complained.

But as in the past, Coburn, et al., are not likely to prevail, given that the vast majority of Senators tend to approach such votes with trepidation, lest their project be the next one on the chopping block. Democratic aides said they did not expect debate on the WRDA bill to drag into next week.

As of press time, the Senate was attempting to conclude debate on the FDA bill. Laura Capps, spokeswoman for bill sponsor Sen. Edward Kennedy (D-Mass.), said if final passage was not held Monday night, it might have to be put off until Wednesday, when Kennedy returns from an official trip to Ireland.

Off the floor, House and Senate talks on a fiscal 2008 budget blueprint continue, but do not appear to have moved forward much since last week. And the House’s decision to wait until today to appoint conferees on a budget resolution makes it all but certain that the final package will not be cleared until next week at the earliest, Senate Budget Chairman Kent Conrad (D-N.D.) indicated Monday.

Though Conrad previously suggested May 15 was the do-or-die date for completion of the budget resolution, he said Monday that “the important thing is that it’s done next week … just so the appropriators can do their work.” May 15 is the date the House Appropriations Committee may begin bringing spending bills to the floor in the absence of a budget plan. The budget sets the top-line cap on domestic discretionary spending.

One Senate Democratic aide said informal budget talks remain at an impasse over several key provisions, including whether to include language accommodating the passage of some middle class tax cuts.

Conrad said he is consulting with the Senate Parliamentarian to find out if he can include language in the resolution allowing the House to institute a trigger that would allow them to pass the middle-class tax cuts only if the Treasury realizes projected surpluses. Conrad explained the language the House has suggested might endanger the budget resolution’s protection from filibuster on the Senate floor because it may be “overly prescriptive.”

Conrad said the language could not exceed “the authority contained in a budget resolution in a way that jeopardizes its privileged status.” He added that he would wait to see what the Parliamentarian’s office said before vetting the language with Senate Finance Chairman Max Baucus (D-Mont.).

Because the Senate is unlikely to take up the budget plan before next week, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) may have to attempt to dual-track final passage of the budget along with an immigration measure scheduled to come up next Monday, said Reid spokesman Jim Manley. The House still may be able pass the budget conference report this week, but it looks more likely that they will take it up next week instead.

Of course, if the Senate takes the first part of next week to work on the budget, that may allow bipartisan negotiations on immigration to continue without the added pressure that constant amendments on the floor might cause. Republicans have been warning Reid not to bring up an immigration bill before the bipartisan talks conclude. GOP sources have said that Reid’s plan to use last year’s bill as a placeholder could have the unintended effect of hardening people’s positions and make it impossible to break an impasse.

And the Senate GOP aide cautioned that 15 conservative Senators, led by DeMint, told Reid in a letter April 27 that they wanted at least a week to review any bipartisan compromise. That may be a tough thing for Reid to do, unless immigration negotiations wrap up this week.

In the meantime, House Democrats will be trying to build up their national security bona fides by taking up a series of bills intended to put their imprint on that issue.

“The first thing that we want to talk to voters about is that we are focused on keeping the nation secure,” said Stacey Farnen Bernards, spokeswoman for House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-Md.). “We’re keeping the focus on the war on terror and on accountability, making sure that the taxpayers’ money is being spent in the most efficient manner possible.”

On the House floor, Members will take up authorization bills for both the Homeland Security Department and intelligence operations. The House Armed Services Committee is scheduled today to take up the fiscal 2008 Defense Department authorization bill.

Meanwhile, House and Senate leaders continue negotiations on a second version of the supplemental Iraq War spending bill.

Tom Gavin, spokesman for Senate Appropriations Chairman Robert Byrd (D-W.Va.), said Democrats still hope to finish in time to have a new version of the supplemental on the president’s desk by Memorial Day, but he offered few clues as to when an agreement would be reached.

“Sen. Byrd, he prefers to hold his cards close to his vest,” Gavin said.

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