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After Break, the Brawl Resumes

Tests Ahead for Bipartisanship

Democrats will face a host of festering issues when they return from the Presidents Day recess, with partisan battles looming on wiretapping, the budget and the war in Iraq.

Just days after the bipartisan lovefest over the massive stimulus package, Congress returned to gridlock and partisan sniping last week, with no relief expected anytime soon.

The political theater over a long-term expansion of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act included a House GOP walkout and other protests over Democratic leaders’ refusal to allow a vote on the Senate bill, even as Republicans blocked a 21-day extension of a stopgap wiretapping measure first passed last July. The discord even impinged on the memorial service for Rep. Tom Lantos (D-Calif.) after Democrats brought the House into session in the midst of the ceremony and Republicans forced a protest procedural vote.

Democratic leaders including House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (Md.) promised to meet over the break to try to resolve the key issue of granting retroactive immunity to telecommunications companies for aid they provided the government after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, with the aim of reaching a deal shortly after Congress returns. Republicans and President Bush say they won’t accept a broad expansion of wiretapping powers unless it includes the immunity provisions, which most Democrats oppose.

The issue has become tinged with politics, as Republicans gleefully planned to beat up on Democrats as soft on terrorists, while House Democratic leaders vowed they were done caving in to unreasonable demands and “fear-mongering” from Bush and the GOP, and they argued that Bush continues to have all the tools he needs to spy on suspected terrorists.

But House Democrats face a potential revolt within their own party, given that 21 conservative Democrats have backed the Senate bill, more than enough to pass it with Republicans.

Ironically, Hoyer said last week he intended to talk to White House Chief of Staff Josh Bolten about resolving the issue — shortly after voting to hold him in contempt of Congress along with former White House counsel Harriet Miers for failing to testify before Congress about the firing of U.S. attorneys.

The partisan sniping won’t get much of a rest even if a compromise can be reached on FISA. House Democrats plan a reprise of an energy tax bill aimed at shifting breaks from oil companies to renewable energy the week of Feb. 25, but such a bill appears all but certain to die either at the hands of Senate Republicans, who blocked similar measures last year, or by Bush’s veto pen. Democrats nonetheless believe they can get political mileage out of showing Republicans in bed with Exxon Mobil and other oil giants at a time when they are enjoying record profits amid $3-a-gallon gasoline.

Meanwhile, with the fifth anniversary of the start of the war in Iraq approaching in March, Democrats have to decide how hard they will push to force a change in direction before giving Bush another massive war spending bill.

The war has been overshadowed recently by the presidential race and the shaky economy, but it remains a potent and polarizing issue, playing roles in primary defeats last week of Rep. Albert Wynn (D-Md.), who was excoriated for voting for the war at the start, and Rep. Wayne Gilchrest (R-Md.), whose votes against the war riled conservatives.

Hoyer has counseled fellow Democrats against more confrontations that use spending bills as leverage to force timetables for withdrawal, but frustrated anti-war Democrats will not be satisfied with that approach.

Even before the supplemental, Democrats in both chambers are planning to hold votes on measures aimed at forcing the redeployment of troops, although Republicans almost certainly will be able to block them from reaching the president’s desk.

Senate Democrats are planning to vote on a cloture motion Feb. 25 on a bill sponsored by Sen. Russ Feingold (D-Wis.) to set a timeline for withdrawing combat troops. Democrats also are planning a cloture motion on a second Feingold bill, which would require the Bush administration to develop strategies to limit repeated deployments of troops and defeat al-Qaida.

House Democrats appear likely to hold similar votes to reinforce their point that Republicans are the reason the war continues.

“What better time to distinguish the difference between the Republicans and the president and the Democrats than on the fifth anniversary of the war?” asked a senior House Democratic aide. “There are still going to be 150,000 troops there … with no exit strategy.”

Democrats also hope to bring a budget resolution to the floor in March, which will set the stage for another yearlong confrontation with Bush on domestic spending levels while providing Democrats with an opportunity for a reconciliation bill that would be exempt from filibusters in the Senate. Democrats are expected to once again show a balanced budget by 2012 while spending tens of billions more each year on domestic spending than Bush.

But the budget may matter little, given that Bush already has threatened to veto all of their appropriations bills this year over earmarks and spending levels, and some Democrats are saying they may wait until 2009 to complete their work, when they hope a Democratic president will be inaugurated.

Democrats also have talked up the possibility of a second stimulus package, which could include boosts to infrastructure spending as well as other items nixed from the first stimulus bill, such as unemployment insurance, food stamps and home energy assistance for the poor. Lawmakers also are considering including housing legislation aimed at easing the mortgage crunch.

Bush already has said he opposes a second stimulus bill, but Congressional Republicans could be in a more difficult spot given that they face the voters in November and he doesn’t.

Meanwhile, both chambers do not expect a war supplemental before April.

“The idea is to do the supplemental after the next report from Gen. Petraeus,” a Senate Democratic aide said.

Instead, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) will use March to continue work on economic legislation as well as a consumer product safety bill. Other possibilities in the Senate include an energy tax package, a farm bill conference report and a package of public lands bills that had been held by Sen. Tom Coburn (R-Okla.).

But Democrats and Republicans said it is unclear how much of the agenda will ultimately move out of the Senate. For instance, while both parties are keen to take a second bite of the economic apple — and are both looking to address the home mortgage crisis — neither seems in the mood to compromise.

House Democrats, meanwhile, also are considering a couple of measures that they hope will attract bipartisan support, including scaled-down immigration reform legislation and an ethics reform package.

Prospects for a bipartisan immigration deal appear slight given the volatile nature of the issue. Last week, House Minority Whip Roy Blunt (R-Mo.) rejected a key component sought by Hispanic Members — the granting of five-year visas to illegal immigrants who pay fines and pass criminal background checks.

Blunt said the proposal won’t reach the president’s desk this year.

House Democrats also are expected to move on an ethics package borne out of the task force chaired by Rep. Mike Capuano (D-Mass.).

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