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It’s Early in the Season, But Reruns Are On Tap

It’s not just Hollywood writers who appear to have been on strike. Reruns in the form of Iraq votes, energy tax packages and votes on a terrorist surveillance bill seem to be the familiar offerings in Congress, as the Democratic majority struggles to come up with fresh agenda items for 2008.

[IMGCAP(1)]After an almost frenzied 2007 that saw action on the Democrats’ ambitious 2006 campaign themes, 2008 has started out comparatively laid-back, with the exception of the passage of the economic stimulus package.

“It might look like we’re working at a slower pace,” noted one House Democratic leadership aide, “but

actually we’ll put in more time this year than Republicans did” in the runup to the 2006 elections when they were in charge.

“The really easy lifting was done last year with the ‘Six for ‘06’ agenda. Now we’re left with the leftovers from last year … because we already passed the majority of our agenda,” explained one Senate Democratic leadership aide.

Even so, the short-term agenda from those aides sounds a lot like the agenda from last year and the years before that: mental health parity, the farm bill, Iraq funding, Iraq withdrawal, energy policy and terrorist surveillance.

And those leftovers seem to be hitting a wall in both chambers, possibly a result of the presidential nominating season, disagreements among House and Senate leaders over how to proceed and fissures among the Democratic rank and file over major policy proposals.

That the Democratic presidential primary race is still under way has stymied the ruling party’s ability to push forward with a fresh schedule, Members and aides said.

Rep. Jim Cooper (D-Tenn.) blamed the primary calendar in part for the slow going, noting that the March 4 primaries would only be the latest to take Members and their attention out of town. “How do you have Congress in when 60 Members are gone? It’s a very tough thing to organize the sausage factory. We’ve never had this many early primaries and it really cripples our ability to get things done.”

Cooper also said expectations have been raised by the speed with which the House passed bills last year.

“A lot of things passed so quickly and effortlessly we don’t get credit for it,” he said, before they got stuck in the “swamp” of the Senate.

Plus, many Democrats are waiting for guidance from the eventual presidential nominee. Once the party coalesces around Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (N.Y.) or Sen. Barack Obama (Ill.), they can coordinate a game plan, one senior Senate Democratic aide said.

“Nobody wants to put out a health care plan right now. Nobody wants to put out an Iraq strategy because nobody wants to have to turn around and screw the nominee,” the aide said.

The lack of a cohesive agenda, the senior Senate Democratic aide said, also derives partly from disagreements between Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) and Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.).

“When she rams stuff through [the House], he feels she puts the Senate in an untenable position,” the aide said.

Plus, Senate Democratic staffers said Reid has a tough time setting a long-term agenda in the face of GOP conservatives intent on scouring even noncontroversial bills that move through the Senate.

“Anytime you have to spend a week and a half on a routine reauthorization of Indian health care, you know you’ve got a unique set of challenges,” the Senate Democratic leadership aide said. (Democrats aim to finish that bill as early as today.)

Another Senate Democratic aide explained that the more leisurely pace of legislative action has come from a near perfect storm of circumstances.

“There’s still somewhat of a hangover from all of the efforts in the first year that were obstructed, but that showed Democrats were trying to effectuate change and Republicans were standing in the way,” the aide said of what Democrats have said is an unprecedented number of filibusters by the GOP. “In the coming months, that dynamic will become apparent again, and in the meantime, we’ve returned to some of the nuts and bolts stuff.”

That includes expected action on a budget resolution in both chambers in March.

Still, the Senate is moving first on what Democrats there are calling their second stab at economic stimulus. The measure, focused on the housing and mortgage crises, encompasses several measures the Senate attempted to include in the first growth package. (House Democrats note that they passed housing items piecemeal last year and will have their own housing bill on the floor this week.)

But the Senate won’t get Stimulus II this week until they vote for the fourth time on a Sen. Russ Feingold (D-Wis.) proposal to force a redeployment of combat troops from Iraq starting within 120 days of enactment. In previous tallies, similar Feingold measures have never received more than 29 votes.

Of course, it’s not clear that Reid would have even scheduled this week’s vote on Iraq withdrawal if Feingold hadn’t extracted a promise for another vote after threatening to hold up the Defense Department authorization bill, a Democratic aide said.

With much of the Democratic agenda stymied by Senate filibusters, the House will return this week to the energy tax legislation, which would shift tax breaks from oil companies to renewables, the aforementioned housing bill and legislation creating an independent ethics office.

“That’s a comprehensive week of legislation,” argued another senior House Democratic leadership aide.

Even though the tax package is a retread, that doesn’t mean that it doesn’t play well, noted another House Democratic leadership aide. “The tax package has been getting press for the past two weeks. People do understand that gas prices are going up, that oil companies are making record profits and it’s time for Congress to take action.”

Republicans are only too happy to jump on Democrats for putting reruns on the floor.

“It’s almost like the lack of a real, substantive schedule in the House is a real fear of failure,” said Antonia Ferrier, spokeswoman for House Minority Whip Roy Blunt (R-Mo.). “Considering how badly they ended last year with misstep after misstep, I don’t blame them for being gun shy, but at the end of the day, aren’t we here to do something?”

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