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Senate Faces Packed Agenda

Multiple Bills Await Action

With three weeks left until Christmas, a federal government to fund and a hefty list of other legislation to pass, Senate Democrats are crossing their fingers that the bipartisan desire to leave town for the holidays will help them unlock some of the remaining stalemates and allow them to get their work done in time.

“There are a lot of balls up in the air right now,” said Jim Manley, spokesman for Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.). “But we’re confident that they’re all going to fall into place.”

Yet in a chamber that appears to have gotten even more unwieldy and partisan in recent years, the risk of having to punt much of their agenda into next year remains very real for Democrats.

The most important piece to fall into place will be an omnibus spending bill that wraps 11 annual appropriations measures into one. With negotiations on that bill likely to continue until the last minute, the Senate will try to deal with other issues such as a bipartisan energy package, a long-stalled farm bill, a measure to rewrite terrorist wiretapping laws, a Peru trade deal, and a partial and temporary repeal of the alternative minimum tax. The omnibus also could potentially include any of those other items.

Notably, another vote linking Iraq War funding to a withdrawal timeline for U.S. troops is likely as well, Manley said.

“This is what Sen. Reid plans to accomplish before the end of the year,” Manley stated.

With all those items in mind, Reid has yet to decide which of the many unresolved bills to bring up this week and is hoping for some consensus with Republicans on the sequencing of legislation. He has been in contact with Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) to discuss the schedule, Manley said.

“To get all of these things done, it’s going to require a significant amount of cooperation from Republicans and the White House,” Manley said. Still, he noted that neither has appeared willing to compromise, saying, “the White House is going out of its way to pick fights with the Hill” and Republicans have “a record-setting pace” of filibusters this year.

Indeed, Senate Republicans warned that Reid’s plan to have another vote on bringing troops home from Iraq has the potential to make them less likely to cut deals on other bills. That vote could occur as early as this week.

“We have as much work to do over the next three weeks as we normally would do in six months, and the reason we are where we are is because of all these … Iraq votes,” one Senate GOP leadership aide said. “If they decide to go for accomplishments instead of political votes, then we should be able to get it done. If they don’t, we won’t.”

Plus, Republicans warn that the White House is unlikely to agree to a deal on the annual appropriations bills if Democrats do not give the Pentagon some or part of the $196 billion it has requested for the Iraq War — without timelines for withdrawal, of course.

But Democrats appear to be laying the groundwork for leaving town this year without providing even the $50 billion “bridge” fund they’ve proposed. Operating under the assumption that they will fail in their next attempt to pass a bridge fund with troop drawdown goals, Senate Democrats have begun crafting a message that puts the blame for the Defense Department’s potential funding shortfall squarely on the president’s shoulders.

“Democrats have and will continue to ensure our troops have the resources they need to do their jobs and will continue to fight for a war strategy worthy of their sacrifices,” Manley said. “President Bush and his enablers in Congress are so afraid of being held accountable for their failed war policy that they would rather leave our men and women on the battlefield shorthanded than work with us to adjust this disastrous strategy.”

Democrats argue that the Pentagon has said it can fully fund the war using money provided in the $459 billion Defense spending bill — the only annual appropriations measure that Bush has signed this year and one of only two that Congress has sent to the White House. But Bush pushed back last week, saying civilian Defense workers and contractors may have to be laid off in order to keep the war going under that funding scheme.

Meanwhile, a stopgap spending bill designed to keep the government afloat in the absence of new appropriations expires on Dec. 14. Congress is expected to pass another such continuing resolution until at least Dec. 21 while they work out the details of the omnibus.

Currently, Democrats and the White House are about $22 billion apart in their discretionary funding caps. Reid and Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) decided before Thanksgiving to cut that $22 billion difference in half in an attempt to jump-start negotiations with Bush, but that has yet to produce results.

As for action this week, the Senate GOP leadership aide said Republicans would not object to action on the Peru trade deal. And both parties expect little disagreement on the energy bill currently slated for House action this week. That means it could be on the Senate floor as early as the week of Dec. 10 and is likely to take two or three days to complete.

Democrats also want to complete action on a revised Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act reform bill this month in order to make sure they do not face a situation like the one they encountered before the August recess, when the White House and Republicans essentially forced passage of a bill many Democrats saw as a blow to civil liberties.

But they’ll have to deal with deep divisions in their own party over how much power to give intelligence agencies to listen in on calls by suspected terrorists as well as whether telecommunications companies should be given immunity from lawsuits for the cooperation they’ve already given the government in such endeavors.

The Senate Intelligence Committee reported a bill that would grant such immunity, but the Senate Judiciary Committee did not. Under Senate rules, the Intelligence bill will serve as the underlying measure, while the Judiciary legislation would come up as the first amendment, Manley said.

Because Republicans and a handful of Democrats support the immunity bill, it appears to have a better chance at passage, but it’s unclear whether supporters have the 60 votes needed to overcome a likely filibuster.

In the meantime, Senate Democrats remain stymied over how to ensure nearly 23 million middle-income Americans do not get hit by the AMT. The tax was intended to make sure wealthy taxpayers paid enough taxes, but it was never indexed for inflation and is increasingly hitting the middle class.

Senate Republicans continue to threaten a filibuster of any AMT bill that would raise taxes on anyone else, but Reid remains committed to offsetting the fix in the name of fiscal responsibility, Manley said. The House already has passed an AMT patch that would increase taxes on private equity partnerships and hedge funds, but an AMT fix that is not paid for continues to be a likely candidate for inclusion in the omnibus, aides have said.

Finally, Democrats and Republicans are still trying to negotiate a deal for a limited number of amendments to the farm bill. If one is reached, that bill could come back to the floor, Manley said.

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