As Democrats hope to obliterate any talk of a “do-nothing” Congress this week and go out with a bang before the August recess, Republicans are planning to hijack the agenda by turning the focus to terrorism. [IMGCAP(1)]
This week’s legislative marathon includes everything from lobbying reform to Defense spending, although some items still are being fleshed out and whipped behind the scenes, including a mammoth children’s health insurance-Medicare bill and an energy package in the House.
Republicans will be pushing Democrats to accede to Bush administration demands to rewrite the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act to make it easier to eavesdrop on terrorists in
other countries without a warrant, among other things.
“It’s going to be an opportunity for us to portray them as weak on combating terrorism yet again,” said one Senate GOP leadership aide.
But the Republicans’ decision to take on FISA already has angered Democrats, who say they have been working quietly with the White House for months to craft a comprehensive FISA reform bill that would update it to account for modern telecommunications technology.
Underscoring the sensitivity of negotiations on the bill, some Congressional Democrats asked the White House on Friday to eliminate a line from President Bush’s already taped Saturday radio address.
At their request, the White House edited out a sentence from the address in which Bush stated, “Every day that Congress puts off these reforms increases the danger to our nation.” Lines stating “our national security depends” on Congress acting were left intact, according to transcripts of the two versions.
“There were Democrats who made the request, and we were happy to accommodate them, because the most important thing is getting this done,” White House spokesman Scott Stanzel said.
While the White House appears to be trying to preserve some modicum of cooperation with Democrats, Congressional Republicans aren’t pulling their punches.
“Rather than learning the lessons of September 11 — that we need to break down the bureaucratic impediments to intelligence collection and analysis — Democrats have stonewalled Republican attempts to modernize FISA and close the terrorist loophole,” House Minority Leader John Boehner (R-Ohio) said in a statement Monday.
Besides the president’s radio address, Republicans also are playing off a letter from National Intelligence Director Mike McConnell that was sent last week to the Democratic and Republican leaders of the House and Senate. The letter asked them to at least modify the current FISA law before they leave for a month, so that federal law enforcement agencies could bypass requirements to obtain warrants to listen in on terrorists overseas if the missives are routed through the United States. Typically, warrants are required for wiretaps on U.S. lines.
Though House Republicans can do little more than vocalize their objectives, Senate Republicans could try to force that chamber’s hand by attempting to bring the narrow FISA bill up for a vote.
“It’s awfully hard to go into the August recess without this one narrow, stopgap fix,” one senior Senate GOP aide said. “If something were to happen, it would be even harder to explain why you couldn’t do this.”
The aide added, “We’re working with the leadership to try and figure out how to get it done without having to go to the floor and have a fight.”
But Democrats said they smelled a rat.
“Sen. Reid and other Democrats are working very hard with senior members of the administration on a way forward on FISA legislation,” said Jim Manley, spokesman for Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.). “Hopefully, Republicans … won’t try to turn such an important national security issue into a partisan political issue. Democrats and Republicans can and have been working together on this very, very closely.”
House Democratic leaders are considering moving an interim measure, and Senate Democrats have not ruled out dealing with it this week.
But some Democrats noted that tweaking FISA would only give more power to Attorney General Alberto Gonzales, who recently has been accused by Democrats of lying to Congress about, among other things, FBI abuses of wiretapping and data collection laws.
“Let me get this straight, is Congressman Boehner suggesting that he supports an effort to give Alberto Gonzales — the most discredited and least trusted figure in this administration — unprecedented and new authorities?” one senior Senate Democratic aide said. “Gonzales and his crew are the gang that can’t shoot straight. This is hardly a tough and smart solution to addressing a growing and real terror threat.”
Boehner spokesman Brian Kennedy responded in kind: “I’m not going to dignify the Gonzales comment, but Leader Boehner would even give it to retreat-oriented Democrats if it prevented another terrorist attack on the United States.”
Partisan sniping aside, Democrats have a bushel of bills to pass this week and limited time to do it.
After sending a package of 9/11 commission-backed intelligence reforms to the president last week, House Democrats will bring the lobbying and ethics reform conference report to the floor today with the Senate expected to clear it Thursday.
Senate GOP leaders largely appear on board with the final version of the lobbying and ethics bill, but it will undoubtedly face opposition from stalwart earmark reform leaders, such as Sen. Jim DeMint (R-S.C.). For that reason, Reid is likely to use procedural maneuvers to limit debate on the measure.
The House also will take up Agriculture and Defense spending bills, with assorted votes planned on the Iraq War, requirements for training soldiers and closing the prison in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.
House Democrats also plan to employ a bit of legislative gymnastics to bring the State Children’s Health Insurance Program/ Medicare package to the floor after Republicans staged a mini-filibuster in the Energy and Commerce Committee last week to spoil a planned markup. Staffers worked on the bill over the weekend and it appears headed for the Rules Committee today, bypassing Energy and Commerce.
Republicans are fighting the package’s 45-cents-a-pack hike in tobacco taxes and cuts to subsidies for private Medicare plans and other Medicare programs that Democrats are using to pay for the package. Democrats are touting a major expansion in the number of children covered by the program, a plan to avoid a scheduled 10 percent cut in doctor pay, fee-free checkups for seniors and an upgrade to rural health care.
Democratic leaders have been working the SCHIP bill hard behind the scenes to get conservative Democrats on board despite the tobacco tax hike. They also hope to pick up a number of votes from Republican moderates.
A far more modest Senate SCHIP-only package coupled with a 61-cent tobacco tax has significant Republican support and will head to the floor this week as well.
Whether Senate consideration of both SCHIP and the lobbying and ethics bill go smoothly or not largely rests in the hands of the chamber’s Republicans, who have had a penchant during the past seven months for insisting on procedural roadblocks.
“With one week to go, hopefully the Republicans are finally prepared to drop their tactics of stall, stop and delay, and get to work,” Manley said.
But the senior Senate GOP aide suggested that Republicans might actually agree to a time limit on consideration of SCHIP, as long as they are guaranteed a vote on their alternative measure to be offered by Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.).
With or without a deal on SCHIP, Reid is virtually assured of enough votes to beat back any potential filibuster. But if a filibuster is attempted, and he has to file motions to cut off debate, it could portend a long week.
The biggest wild card of the week appears to be the House energy package. The hodgepodge collected from numerous House committees is scheduled for an all-day, get-out-of-town marathon session on Friday, and Democrats hope the smell of jet fumes will help them work through one of the most divisive issues for their Caucus.
Backers of a renewable energy standard that would require utilities to get 20 percent of the their electricity from clean, renewable sources like wind and solar, hope to amend the energy legislation with the backing of Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.). Democrats have signaled that they intend to delay a fight over vehicle-mileage standards until a House-Senate conference committee.
A House Democratic leadership aide said they were making progress over the weekend getting oil-patch Democrats and Blue Dogs on board but acknowledged that the energy legislation could slip.
Republicans, meanwhile, kept up the drumbeat that Democrats will be taxing.
“They’re increasing yet another tax on the American people in SCHIP, taxing our energy security with new restrictions on American energy production, and taxing our fight against al-Qaida in Iraq with new resolutions that ignore progress in the surge and undermine our commanders on the ground,” Kennedy said.
Senate Democrats also are holding out hope for passage of a Water Resources Development bill that includes countless water project earmarks for Member districts. But the senior Senate GOP aide warned that trying to pass the conference report on WRDA may be asking too much.
“There’s a lot to do this week. To squeeze in another thing might be pretty difficult,” the aide predicted.