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Congress’ Exit Strategy: Actually Pass Some Bills

Before jetting home for the Memorial Day recess, Congress must first plow through two weeks of long days, seemingly insurmountable frustrations, futile legislative endeavors and, possibly, even a few compromises.

[IMGCAP(1)]“Nothing’s easy,” said one Senate Democratic leadership aide. “With [Republicans] filibustering all but the most routine motions, we’ll have to grind it out and hope to get as much done before the end of the next two weeks as possible.”

Indeed, House and Senate Democrats aim to move

legislative mountains in the next two weeks by finishing up conferences on the farm bill and a budget resolution, while trying to pass a supplemental war spending bill that can win a majority from within their own party.

That would be more than enough to fill two weeks of time, but Senate Democrats also plan to bring up a motion to kill new regulations allowing broader media consolidation, a first responders’ collective bargaining bill, and their measure to target rising gas prices by rescinding oil company tax breaks, imposing restraints on oil futures speculation and imposing a “windfall” profits tax.

Plus, the chamber is scheduled to vote today on dueling partisan energy amendments on an unrelated flood insurance bill. The Republican plan would attempt to stimulate oil production in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge and offshore, to name a few of the proposal’s provisions. Democrats have attempted to keep it simple by offering only to stop filling the Strategic Petroleum Reserve to ease the upward pressure on gas prices. House Democrats also plan to bring a bill to the floor that would stop filling the reserve. To be considered under suspension of the rules, the bill is expected to win bipartisan support.

However, House leaders have their hands full this week negotiating the nearly $250 billion war supplemental with Blue Dog Democrats, who are demanding an offset for the $52 billion boost to veterans’ education benefits in a new GI bill. Any offset is likely to wind up as window dressing because the Senate is likely to dismiss it, but it would allow Blue Dogs to declare a temporary — if hollow — victory.

Such a scenario resembles last year’s debate over the $50 billion alternative minimum tax patch, which House Democrats passed with offsets only to have the Senate balk.

The Senate path is no clearer as the Appropriations panel is marking up its version that would add billions for highways, scientific research, hurricane recovery and law enforcement grants. Democrats have declared these domestic “emergencies,” a gambit that could tick off House Democrats who had tried to strike a deal with their Senate counterparts to keep the domestic spending narrow and focused on veterans and the unemployed.

The cost of the Senate’s plan, which will be voted on separately from the war money, is likely to draw stiff opposition from Senate Republicans. Appropriations ranking member Thad Cochran (R-Miss.) and Budget ranking member Judd Gregg (R-N.H.) predicted last week that the domestic package would fail to get the 60 votes needed to beat back a filibuster.

With the House acting first this week, Democrats also are trying to clear the farm bill after a conference agreement was reached last week. Once the farm bill is off the table, the House and Senate should be able to quickly crank out a budget conference agreement.

A new budget resolution would make the farm bill billions of dollars overweight under the same pay-as-you-go budget rules that Blue Dogs have been demanding for the GI bill. The cause of the farm bill’s bloat? The soaring cost of commodities in the past year. That’s why the bill’s critics say it relies on budget gimmicks to disguise its cost, and President Bush appears certain to veto it.

If Bush vetoes it in short order, the votes to override could pass before Memorial Day, reflecting the bill’s bipartisan support.

Senate Budget Chairman Kent Conrad (D-N.D.) said last week that budget conferees — who have yet to be officially appointed — still have one last sticking point: the overall number for domestic discretionary spending.

The $1.8 billion difference on discretionary money between the House and Senate wouldn’t be such a big deal if House Appropriations Chairman David Obey (D-Wis.) weren’t preoccupied by his fight on the supplemental, Conrad said.

Obey spokeswoman Kirstin Brost denied that Obey was distracted. “That is absolute nonsense,” she said. “He has been fully engaged.”

The war bill “is clearly affecting the timing” of the budget conference, Conrad said. Also, Republicans’ recent ploy of creating procedural delays on the House floor has made Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) even more reluctant to appoint budget conferees, he said.

“That has a cascading effect,” Conrad said, noting that Republicans could further gum up the works in the House with motions to instruct conferees once they’re named.

Meanwhile, the Senate is expected to avoid a filibuster on a bipartisan collective bargaining measure for local firefighters, police and other first responders. It is unclear, however, what the outcome will be on a vote to disapprove of Federal Communications Commission rules regarding cross-ownership of news outlets.

House Democrats also expect next week to bring a Defense authorization bill to the floor, a package of bills affecting veterans, and the Consumer Product Safety Commission conference report.

There is still a chance that the House could clear the supplemental next week, assuming it comes back from the Senate, as well as pass an extension of renewable energy tax credits and the higher education conference report.

And Democratic leaders still haven’t given up hope of reaching a compromise on warrantless wiretapping legislation.

Despite all the work remaining, Democrats are striking an optimistic tone. Said one senior Senate Democratic aide, “With some luck and some cooperation from Republicans, we could do quite well over the next two weeks.”

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