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Summer Dreams Likely to Fade Quickly in September

As nearly all of Washington leaves town for August, we’d like to take this time to give all of you beachgoers a sand-eye view of what perfect storms you’re sailing into come September. So, strap on your sandals — it’s going to be a bumpy ride. [IMGCAP(1)]

The main event, of course, remains the Iraq War, and in September all of those pleas from Republicans to “wait until September” will no longer be operative.

After all, the U.S. commander in Iraq, Gen. David Petraeus, has to present his report to Congress by Sept. 15, and he is expected to ask for more time and more money. So the new refrain could be “wait until December,” or however long Republicans are willing to stick with President Bush.

On the undercard, of course, is the “Shutdown Showdown Smackdown,” whereby Democrats will serve up spending bills and Bush very likely will veto them. So Democrats will be forced to pass several stopgap spending bills and, once again, December might become the new September.

But there is plenty more to meditate on oceanside besides guns and butter. There’s energy, health care, student loans, alternative minimum tax relief, No Child Left Behind II and more coming down the pike, and both sides are readying for the fight.

“The majority spent much of the session building castles in the sand, hoping that high tide would never come,” quipped Antonia Ferrier, spokeswoman for House Minority Whip Roy Blunt (R-Mo.). “But now with the boys of summer about to return, we’re faced with an SCHIP bill that kicks sand in the face of our seniors, an energy bill written under the boardwalk by the extreme environmentalist crowd, and a raft of appropriations bills that were crafted as if we were spending sand dollars instead of real ones.”

Nadeam Elshami, spokesman for Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), had a sunnier view. “Building on the success of the first seven months, the new-direction Congress will continue to push for critical priorities like lowering college costs and putting our country on a road to energy independence,” he said.

So load up on your sunscreen — September looks to be a scorcher.

Petraeus’ report will hit town just as Democrats in both chambers revisit for the umpteenth time the issue of how to bring the Iraq War to an end without cutting off funding for the troops.

The key, of course, is passing a Defense Department appropriations bill before Sept. 30, lest they be accused of keeping needed funding from our men and women in uniform.

Senators will likely have a twofer in taking up the Defense spending and authorization bills as Petraeus’ report hits their desks. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) hasn’t announced his game plan but has been focused on using the authorization bill to change course in Iraq.

One senior Senate Democratic aide, who resented being asked to work during the recess, predicted that Iraq would be the dull roar in the background during the first part of September as Members mull over a Government Accountability Office report on the war due out the first week of the month. Adding to the buildup will be the likely gradual leaks of Petraeus’ report before the 15th, the aide said.

Meanwhile, House Appropriations Subcommittee on Defense Chairman John Murtha (D-Pa.) is pushing a short-term supplemental Iraq funding bill with an open-ended timeline for withdrawal. Of course, Democratic leaders lately have been taking Murtha’s plans and shoving them in a deep, dark hole, given his proposals’ penchant to cause widespread heartburn among Blue Dog Democrats, Republicans, Senators, the White House and even liberals.

The real question is what all of those Republicans, who have used the refrain “we need to wait until September” like it was a personal floatation device, will say as the prospect of another drubbing at the ballot box looms ever closer.

One Senate Republican leadership aide, who was inexplicably in town last week, said the modicum of good news coming out of Iraq this month could reinvigorate the GOP’s “wait-and-see” approach to the war.

“I thought it was just ‘Get us to September so we have some unity now, and then every man for himself,’” said the aide. “There was not a lot of confidence that things would dramatically change [in Iraq]. But I think that attitude is shifting.”

As a result, the aide said, “The strategy for September is in flux — probably for both parties.”

Democrats and war opponents, however, say the pressure will remain on Republicans.

“What we’re going to see in September is a report from Gen. Petraeus that will show the Iraqi government is unable or unwilling to make the sacrifices needed for political reconciliation,” Elshami said. “The Republicans will have to make a choice of whether to continue to protect the president or support Democratic efforts to redeploy our troops and refocus our efforts on protecting Americans and fighting terrorism.”

When the Senate surfs back into town on Sept. 4, they also will have a whole lot of catching up to do on the appropriations bills, given that they passed only a single bill — Homeland Security — while the House has finished all 12.

The question is how many measures will reach the president’s desk by the Sept. 30 end of the fiscal year. Homeland Security is likely a cinch, as Democrats think they have the best chance to win a veto override battle on that bill. Military Construction-Veterans Affairs also should be a slam dunk, given that Bush hasn’t threatened to veto it despite billions in extra dough for military health care.

Indeed, the resentful senior Senate Democratic aide said the Senate would focus on bills “that [the White House] would have a very hard time vetoing.”

Bush, of course, has drawn a line in the sand and promises vetoes for bills that exceed his spending levels. Democrats almost certainly will decide to roll most of the bills together into a giant omnibus, although they may not get around to it before, say, Thanksgiving.

While the spending tug of war continues, Pelosi and Energy and Commerce Chairman John Dingell (D-Mich.) will resume their legislative cage match over vehicle fuel economy as the big energy bill moves to conference.

Pelosi outmaneuvered Dingell on passing renewable electricity standards on the House floor before the break, but didn’t need to on automobile efficiency because the Senate bill already included a 35-miles-per-gallon standard.

It’s all subject to a presidential veto threat, of course, like almost everything else of consequence these days. As if things weren’t hot enough, Dingell is drafting a global warming package full of politically controversial stuff to follow, with the coal lobby, greenies and smokestack industries duking it out.

And it’s anybody’s guess whether Reid will even be able to get consent to go to conference on an energy bill anytime soon.

Pelosi and Dingell may spar over energy, but they are two peas in a pod when it comes to expanding health care coverage for children. The real battle here is with the White House, with Bush’s veto threat and a Sept. 30 deadline looming.

Will the Senate go along with the House plan to whack Medicare Advantage subsidies for insurance companies to prevent a cut in doctors’ pay and provide free checkups for seniors? (Answer: Senate Finance Chairman Max Baucus [D-Mont.] has hinted mysteriously that there are other ways to raise revenue.)

What about the House’s more ambitious $50 billion infusion into the State Children’s Health Insurance Program versus the Senate’s $35 billion? (Answer: Trick question! The White House has threatened to veto both.)

Conferees also have to split the baby between the Senate’s 61-cent tobacco tax and the House’s 45-cent tax.

Speaking of taxes, the House could finally pass its AMT relief package in September after months of keeping it under wraps. The trouble is, House Democrats want a long-term fix that is paid for by a rate hike on people making more than $500,000 a year, something Republicans oppose and Senate Democrats have yet to embrace. A short-term patch is the tried-and-true fallback position. Anybody got $50 billion to spare?

And with students heading back to school after Labor Day, Democrats aren’t going to let their signature issue get buried in the sand like so many dads of yore.

With filibuster-proof protections in the Senate, it’s a safe bet both chambers will be able to pass a higher education reconciliation bill that aims to lower college costs.

Plus, Members of Congress are expected to outline their plans for an extension and revision of the No Child Left Behind Act. But NCLB faces big hurdles, including the fact that it gets extended for a year automatically if Congress does nothing, and you know how much Congress likes to procrastinate. Then there’s the fact that more Republicans are turning against Bush’s signature domestic initiative and lots of Democrats want big changes, too.

In the midst of all of this, one bill could head to the president’s desk shortly after lawmakers’ return: a package intended to slash student loan interest rates by paring lender subsidies.

Oh, wait. Did we mention that’s veto-bait, too?

So, enjoy your sandcastles while you can.

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