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Adjournment Likely in December

Democrats still do not have a firm plan for how to resolve a spending impasse with President Bush and are now setting their sights on early to mid-December as their target for adjourning for the year.

“We’re going to be out at some point between Nov. 16 and Dec. 21,” said one purposely vague House Democratic leadership aide, who added that Democratic leaders are “not ready to share” their appropriations strategy.

Still, the official line from both Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s (D-Calif.) and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid’s (D-Nev.) offices is that they hope to send all 12 annual appropriations bills to the president — and rather than have them vetoed, as Bush has threatened, get them signed into law — by Nov. 16, the Friday before the week of Thanksgiving.

There is some optimism about Congress’ ability to reach consensus with the president, given the relative ease with which Senate Democrats have been able to pass the handful of appropriations bills they’ve actually brought up.

“Unlike the political Iraq votes, [appropriations] is probably something everyone wants to get done,” said Don Stewart, spokesman for Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), who added that the situation “makes it less likely that things will get stalled.”

Stewart added that Democrats created the current situation with past-due appropriations bills by holding repeated votes on the Iraq War instead of pushing spending bills prior to the Oct. 1 start of the fiscal year.

“If it’s not a political vote and the vote is not just meant for putting people on the record, that bodes well for bipartisan cooperation,” he said.

But even if the Senate passes all of its bills and they make it through House-Senate conference committees, the White House appears to be dug in on its demand that Democrats cut as much as $22 billion from their spending bills and Democrats are still at odds over how to respond.

That makes it unlikely that Congress could adjourn before Thanksgiving. In fact, there is already a plan to take a two-week break for the harvest holiday and return on Dec. 3, according to Democratic aides.

While House Democrats have attempted in recent weeks to force faster Senate action on the annual appropriations bills by saying they will adjourn Nov. 16 regardless of Senate action, House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) put a damper on those expectations last week.

After saying he wants to move appropriations bills to the president prior to Thanksgiving, Hoyer told Minority Whip Roy Blunt (R-Mo.) on the House floor Wednesday that he doesn’t want Republicans to have “the impression I thought that all l2 [bills] would possibly be moved through by the 16th of November.”

Hoyer acknowledged Blunt’s point that the Senate has passed only five appropriations bills and that none of those has officially moved to a House-Senate conference to be reconciled.

However, the Senate will resume debate on its Commerce, Justice, science and related agencies appropriations bill today, following its weeklong recess. Plus, Reid plans to move to the Labor, Health and Human Services, Education and related agencies spending measure later this week.

Though Reid has said Congress intends to send Bush one or two bills before the end of October, Democrats still are undecided about which spending measures to send to the president, according to a Democratic House aide.

Bush has said, for example, that he may sign a military construction-Veterans Affairs spending measure that is about $4 billion over the White House request. But he added that he expects Democrats to cut that amount from other spending bills.

Democrats are debating whether to have Bush sign bills such as that, which would potentially limit their options on other measures, or to keep their options open by first sending him legislation he will certainly veto.

Meanwhile, Congressional Democrats need to bring up and pass before the end of the year an alternative minimum tax bill to ensure that millions of middle-income taxpayers do not get ensnared by a law designed to make sure wealthy citizens pay a minimum tax. But they are likely to run into roadblocks from Republicans over how they decide to offset the cost of the measure.

Democrats also are looking to either override the president’s recent veto of their bill to expand the State Children’s Health Insurance Program or pass another extension of the current program. The House override vote on SCHIP is scheduled for Thursday, but House Republican leaders have guaranteed they will be able to uphold the veto.

Additionally, Democrats are hoping to pass what they say is a foreign terrorist surveillance bill that balances civil liberties with national security. However, Republicans say it would limit the United States’ ability to thwart another terrorist attack.

Reid has said he wants to complete a farm bill, an energy bill conference, an Amtrak measure and override votes on presidential vetoes of both water resources legislation and a stem-cell research bill prior to Nov. 16.

It’s a tall order, Senate Republicans note. And they point out that their cooperation on appropriations likely will taper off as the year drags on, particularly if the majority attempts to push an omnibus appropriations bill.

As one Senate Republican leadership aide said, “Tell everybody to be ready to stay until Christmas.”

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