Buried in Senate Majority Leader Harry Reids (D-Nev.) opening speech Monday was a small glimmer of hope for Senators and staff.
[IMGCAP(1)]Even as Reid laid out an ambitious legislative schedule for the runup to the August recess, he dangled the possibility that the Senate will not stay in session for the week of Aug. 4. That week has prompted grumbling on the Senate side, as the House plans to high-tail it out of Washington the week before.
If we finish these pieces of legislation … in the first four weeks were here, then I have no problem taking that first week in August off, Reid said, apparently trying to light a bipartisan fire under Senators derrieres.
But theres a catch. Reid
wants to tackle as many as a dozen major bills in the next four weeks. Compare that to the last four-week work period, which saw the passage of three major measures a farm bill veto override, the war supplemental and the annual budget blueprint while four substantial measures were essentially filibustered.
Reid could have a running start this week. He has laid the groundwork for passage of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act overhaul on Wednesday, and he has a reasonable chance of passing a housing foreclosure bill this week, or early next week at the latest.
Procedural hurdles to passing the housing bill have been erected by Sen. John Ensign (R-Nev.), who is still demanding a vote on an energy tax extenders amendment, and Sen. Jim DeMint (R-S.C.) is threatening to block it despite the fact that a filibuster-proof majority backs the legislation.
That double whammy already forced the Senate to vote Monday night on a procedural motion to bring debate on one portion of the bill to a close. Another such vote on different portions is expected later this week, but not before the Senate tries to work around other roadblocks to the FISA bill and a Medicare doctors fix.
Reid said he will call for a Wednesday revote on the Medicare measure, which failed to overcome a GOP-led filibuster by one vote before the July Fourth break. Reid personally called GOP Senators on Monday to solicit their support.
Although many in his rank and file continue to take a beating from the American Medical Association and AARP, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) stood his ground on Monday and continued to press for a 31-day extension to give Senate Finance Chairman Max Baucus (D-Mont.) and ranking member Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) time to work out a compromise that unlike the current bill would not draw a veto threat.
He sidestepped a question on whether he thought any of his Republican colleagues had changed their minds after a weeklong lobbying push from physician and seniors groups.
At the risk of being redundant, Id like to get a result here, McConnell said. A vetoed bill doesnt produce a timely result.
Another loss on the Medicare issue could force Democrats to attempt a different approach in trying to prevent physicians from having to take a 10.6 percent reimbursement cut.
Even if the housing, Medicare and FISA bills are completed by next week, the following three weeks wont be any easier or less fraught with partisan drama considering the Majority Leader said he wants to vote again on both a tax extenders bill one similar to Ensigns but paid for with offsets as well as the Democratic measure targeting rising gas prices. Plus, he said, he wants to take up legislation protecting reporters from some subpoenas, a measure for emergency AIDS funding, a conference report on the Consumer Product Safety Commission reauthorization, a bill to increase funding for low-income heating assistance, the Defense Department authorization, the Defense Department appropriations bill, and a mega-bill designed to get around the objections of Sen. Tom Coburn (R-Okla.) to a host of smaller measures.
If that seems like a lot, Reid acknowledged as much, but he also held out the possibility that he would work with Republicans to pare the list or find bipartisan alternatives to Democratic measures.
If these are more than we can bear, talk to me, Reid said on the floor Monday. I think Ive been pretty reasonable in setting these out. I have gone over these with the Republican leader, and Im happy to sit down and talk to him if he thinks some of these are a bridge too far.
Reid and McConnell indicated a desire to work toward a bipartisan solution to gas prices, with Reid saying he would be willing to work on just those issues such as speculation in oil markets on which Republicans and Democrats tend to agree.
McConnell on Monday proposed sitting down with Reid and the leaders of the Energy and Natural Resources Committee to develop a bipartisan solution to the energy crisis. McConnell, who is up for re-election this year, said that the price at the pump is clearly and unambiguously the most pressing issue before the American public, and that since 9/11, theres been no time when an issue has resonated as this one does.
While bipartisanship may be in bloom on gas prices, Reid has notified Senators that they should expect to be in session for the entire July 25 weekend to vote on the procedural motions necessary to overcome Coburns holds on legislation that will be packaged into one massive measure.
But on other measures, such as the media shield law and low-income heating assistance, Reid acknowledged they might not take long on the floor.
Some of these may not go very far. There could be a Republican objection, Reid said.
What Republicans object to might make the difference between whether the Senate gets out a week early in August. But Reid left it unclear which bills he would be willing to leave on the cutting-room floor, and he wasnt optimistic that the Senate would leave town on Aug. 1.
These are critical priorities of the American people every one of them, Reid said. The next several weeks could be easy or they could be difficult. If my colleagues on the other side of the aisle are willing, we could pass this legislation swiftly. … But if we look to the last 18 months past is prologue then there will be, likely, some heel-dragging.
Erin P. Billings contributed to this report.