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Endgame Table Turned on Reid

As the House and Senate sort their way through the annual end-of-session appropriations pileup, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) finds himself the subject of the same accusations of leading a “do-nothing” Congress that as Minority Leader he heaped on then-Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-Tenn.) in recent years.

Unlike in the House, where leaders can push through legislation at a breakneck pace, the Senate is a much slower body where even the most mundane issues can become bogged down in procedural motions and quorum calls. And during the yearly push to wrap up spending measures, the chamber comes to a virtual standstill as lawmakers and staff spend weeks behind closed doors attempting to cobble together sufficient coalitions to move bills.

The crucible of end-of-session legislating, and its attendant message difficulties, has become a staple of modern Washington, and afflicts Republicans and Democrats alike.

A former senior GOP leadership aide who worked during Frist’s tenure said that while legislating in the Senate is always difficult, the calendar and fiscal pressures of end-of-session appropriating make for difficult terrain — and difficulty surviving politically unharmed.

“It’s kind of like walking across a floor of light bulbs barefoot. Its conceivable you may pull it off, but you have to be very careful and go real slow,” the aide said.

For the first time since January, Frist was in the Senate on Tuesday to meet with Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), and he said the legislative stalemate reminded him of 2006, when he was last in charge of keeping the trains moving.

“It’s pretty much like we were last year,” Frist said.

Like Frist before him, Reid over the past several months has been harshly criticized by pundits and his political opponents for presiding over a “do-nothing” Congress, despite early successes. For instance, while Frist passed a number of high-profile measures early in 2005, including bankruptcy reform and energy legislation, by the time Congress took up appropriations in earnest in the fall, most of those victories had been forgotten and he was constantly accused of being unable to run the chamber effectively.

Likewise, Reid this year has passed a number of high-profile measures, including ethics and lobbying reform and minimum-wage bills. But with only a one-vote majority — or sometimes none at all, since the start of nonstop presidential campaigning by four of Reid’s fellow Democrats — and a political atmosphere poisoned by the war in Iraq, little of note has been passed in months.

Senators in both parties acknowledged that the closing weeks of a Congressional session rarely yield much for either party to crow about. And the reality is particularly troublesome for the majority party as it looks to tout a laundry list of legislative accomplishments in the face of what’s become a perennial end-of-the-year fight over outstanding appropriations bills.

Sen. Olympia Snowe (R-Maine) said the circumstances are predictable, and they are unfortunate since neither party seems to learn from past mistakes.

“I think it is the ambition of the leadership to avert an end-of-the-year logjam … especially at this moment in time,” Snowe said. “But since ’73, I haven’t seen it any differently and it seems to be getting worse.”

With such a small margin of power, the recently minted Democratic majority is facing a heavy lift trying to end the first year of the 110th Congress cleanly. What’s more, Democrats are wrestling against the powerful veto pen of President Bush, which has forced them to try to craft an omnibus spending package that can win Congressional and White House approval.

“It’s very hard ground to plow,” Sen. Ken Salazar (D-Colo.) said recently. “We have some serious procedural and political obstacles in our way.”

Sen. Bob Menendez (D-N.J.) agreed that the Republican minority “has a way of making it appear as if you have no successes.” Even as Democrats try to magnify their legislative victories from earlier in the year, they tend to get lost, he said.

“It’s challenging,” Menendez said. “That’s why I’m working my backside off to make sure we have more Democratic Senators next year.”

A senior Democratic leadership aide acknowledged that Reid and other leaders have found their accomplishments drowned out by the end-of-session realities.

“Being reflective about a year’s worth of progress is often difficult because of the rush to finish pending business. In this case, there’s a lot of pending business,” the aide said, placing much of the blame on Bush and Senate Republicans who have backed him. “That makes for a dynamic where there’s a lot of conflict at the end of the year.”

The aide added that Reid likely will make one final push to trumpet this year’s accomplishments following the end of the session before pivoting to his new message strategy tailored for the election year. “When this is all said and done, we’ll have to mount a full-throated defense of this year,” the aide said.

Senate margins notwithstanding, many Republicans say Democrats have made matters worse for themselves this year. Had Democrats not spent so much time trying to force votes to end the war in Iraq, Congress may have had an easier time calling it quits, GOP Senators said.

“There’s no clean way to wrap this up,” Sen. Judd Gregg (R-N.H.) said. “They didn’t stumble into this.”

Yet Republicans’ track record isn’t one to boast about, either. Last year, the GOP majority — having just lost control of Congress in the November election — punted their remaining spending bills for this Congress to handle.

And sessions before that weren’t much better, with Republicans regularly finding themselves forced to package their appropriations bills into a massive catchall measure to try to get Members home before Christmas Eve. GOP lawmakers often were in the same position as the Democrats find themselves these days — trying in vain to get public attention for a year’s worth of legislative accomplishments.

Sen. Bob Bennett (R-Utah) said recently that Democrats should be able to do better this year since getting things done was one of the main arguments they made to win back control of Congress in 2006. Still, Bennett acknowledged that both parties have had their difficulties successfully adjourning for the year.

“Each end of session is unique — it’s just that each one is messy,” Bennett said. “There are just different degrees of messy.”

Steven T. Dennis contributed to this report.