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Iraq, Approps Fights to Top Remaining Agenda

A casual observer might assume that if there is one word that will determine what happens in Congress this fall, it’s “Iraq.” That may be partially true, but the real test of how long Congress will stay in town can be summarized with a better word — “money.” [IMGCAP(1)]

And there’s a lot of it to be disbursed between now and the end of the session. With just four short weeks until the beginning of fiscal 2008, Congress has not sent a single appropriations bill to the president and has only one real prospect for doing so prior to Oct. 1.

That’s why the Senate is kicking things off this week with action on the traditionally non-controversial military construction and Veterans Affairs spending bill. In a statement, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) outlined his priorities as passing all 12 appropriations bills, completing a rewrite of the State Children’s Health Insurance Program and passing a student-loan bill conference report.

Reid added, “And, we will continue to work to protect America’s troops and fight for a change of course in Iraq.”

Meanwhile, the House gets back to business this week with a relatively light agenda packed with minor bills. That should give Democrats plenty of time to discuss the coming battle strategy for appropriations and Iraq behind the scenes. Among the bills expected to hit the floor are patent reform, election reform and housing assistance for Native Americans.

With the exception of the Homeland Security spending bill, the House will have to wait out the spending bill debates in the Senate before it can re-engage on conference reports to send to the president. (The House passed all 12 bills before leaving for the August recess.)

With spending bills to pass and a host of other priorities in their grab bag, Democratic leaders already have acknowledged they’re going to have to stay in town at least until Thanksgiving and already have scheduled an unusual weeklong October recess.

“I think we’ll be out of here by Thanksgiving,” said one hopeful senior House leadership aide. “We can’t let all this stuff drag on, and most things are teed up in conference reports. I’m not sure what we get by staying.”

Of course, that assumes President Bush is willing to compromise on his threat to veto as many as nine spending bills that exceed his requests. Part of the reason for the all-too-familiar extended fall session is that Congress and the White House already have set themselves up for an old-fashioned, clichéd fight over spending priorities. That’s chiefly because Bush has balked at the Democrats’ plan to spend more than $20 billion beyond what he requested on domestic priorities.

“The ball really is in the Democrats’ court,” said Brian Kennedy, spokesman for House Minority Leader John Boehner (R-Ohio). “They are the majority party in Congress, and they know full well that Republicans will not support and President Bush will not sign bills that increase taxes on the American people and spend exponentially more than the federal government should be spending. They have a choice, they can do the right thing or they can continue to spend like drunken sailors and force a showdown that might carry us into December.”

Democrats also must decide whether to try to add some of their priorities to the upcoming stopgap spending bill, although such a high-stakes game would risk a government shutdown if Bush vetoed it. But chances are that shutdown showdown is likely to occur more than once this fall because Congress probably will have to pass more than one continuing resolution to keep the government funded.

Meanwhile, Democrats may try to use Bush’s request for unprecedented war funds — reportedly, up to as much as $200 billion for 2008 alone — as leverage to get him to agree to higher funding levels for domestic programs.

“Anytime the president wants something, it puts us in a position to try to get something we want,” said one senior Senate Democratic aide.

Democrats may have other leverage points as well, such as tying increases in transportation spending to the catastrophic freeway bridge collapse in Minneapolis last month.

“All [the president’s] got going for him is his desire to pick a fight over tax and spending policies … with phony arguments that don’t have any basis in reality,” said Reid spokesman Jim Manley.

With Senate Democratic leaders at least tacitly acknowledging they can’t get all the appropriations bills to the president by the end of the month, Reid has penciled in a number of other priorities for the five-week runup to Columbus Day.

Chief among the non-appropriations work are Reid’s plans to resume consideration of the Defense Department authorization bill, which he pulled from the floor in July after failing to add language forcing a change of mission in Iraq. That bill is likely to move in tandem with a Defense spending bill.

Among the other notable September agenda items is a potential veto override vote on a stem-cell research bill. With Sen. Tim Johnson (D-S.D.) returning to the chamber after a long recovery from a brain aneurysm, Democrats believe they have at least 66 votes for an override of Bush’s veto — one shy of the number they need.

Democratic aides acknowledged that they are unlikely to break the 67-vote override barrier on stem cells but will take the vote to both show voters they are trying to get the measure passed and to put pressure on politically vulnerable Sen. John Sununu (R-N.H.).

The Senate also may attempt to bring up a bill to give the District of Columbia full voting representation in Congress. The measure is facing a certain filibuster attempt, but Democrats say they are close to having the 60 votes needed to shut down that delaying tactic.

And in a nod to the administration and antsy Republicans, the Senate will hold a vote on the nomination of former Rep. Jim Nussle (R-Iowa) to be Office of Management and Budget director. Reid also has pledged to hold a vote on the controversial nomination of Leslie Southwick to the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals.

On the nominations front, one Senate Republican leadership aide said Bush may try to further stir the partisan pot by sending up another round of circuit court nominations, which have tended to create the most heartburn among Democrats.

Though the legislation introduced this year will carry over into the second session of the 110th Congress, the senior Senate Democratic aide said Democratic leaders do not want to lose any momentum they have built up for issues such as children’s health insurance and higher education.

“There’s a perception that when a session ends, everything that’s been done in that session ends with it,” the aide said.

The conference report that appears closest to the finish line is the student loan bill intended to cut interest rates in half. In fact, Reid hopes to take that up in the Senate this week.

Democrats also want to send the president a State Children’s Health Insurance Program bill before the program expires on Sept. 30. But prospects are slim for the president to sign the first SCHIP bill Congress sends to him because Bush has threatened to veto both the House and Senate versions of the bill.

The two chambers also have to negotiate an enormously complicated energy package.

While the ability to get the annual spending bills signed by the president will determine whether Congress leaves by Thanksgiving or stays on through December, Democrats said they are not going to limit their post-Columbus Day agenda to conference reports.

The Senate Democratic leadership aide said bills on global warming and the subprime mortgage crisis could crop up in October or November.

House Democrats also must decide whether to propose short-term or long-term relief from the alternative minimum tax and agree among themselves on how and whether to pay for it. The Ways and Means Committee will hold a hearing this week.

Legislation on the Head Start program, No Child Left Behind and a permanent reform of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act also are potentially on tap in the House this fall.

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