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Senate Plots Two-Week Dash

Majority Leader Harry Reid’s (D-Nev.) decision to let the Senate leave town a week earlier than expected promises to deliver a tumultuous two weeks as both parties seek to score political points heading into the August recess and the presidential nominating conventions.

“It’ll be an intense two weeks or so leading up to it, with the possibility of some weekend sessions,” Sen. Bob Menendez (D-N.J.) predicted.

Reid said he made the decision to recess by Aug. 3, rather than the planned Aug. 8, because he believed his ambitious agenda for the month will be largely completed.

“I think that we’re going to accomplish enough to justify being off,” Reid said, adding that the House would be out of session during the first week of August as well. “That limits what we can do. I think we’re better off being out of here.”

But Reid has not shortened his list of must-pass legislation by much. He still wants to spend most of next week on an energy market speculation bill that is designed to put a damper on rising oil prices. The Senate also might take up next week a housing bill that is expected to include a rescue package for mortgage giants Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac.

Reid also wants to tackle a measure increasing funds for low-income home heating assistance, a bill to protect journalists from some subpoenas, a Defense Department authorization bill, a Defense appropriations bill and an omnibus package of bills that have been held up by Sen. Tom Coburn (R-Okla.). And as of press time, the Senate was closing in on passage of President Bush’s global AIDS bill.

“We believe we have Republican support for each of these items and are hopeful that Republicans will work with us to get them done in the remaining weeks in this work period,” Reid spokesman Jim Manley said.

For both parties, however, leaving town on a high note is not a sure thing.

Privately, Democrats have been worried that they haven’t responded quickly enough to the mounting gas price issue, especially since Bush and Congressional Republicans have been pushing for legislation for several months and made the issue the focal point of GOP messaging. Republicans, for their part, believe they are winning the energy debate, and despite other setbacks they have had this year, they can leave town with a little momentum.

“Candidly, we are very comfortable with this issue,” said Senate Republican Conference Chairman Lamar Alexander (Tenn.).

“We intend to force the Senate to do something — it’s what 99 percent of the American public wants us to do, which is take care of gas prices,” he added. “That’s what we intend to do.”

Republicans aren’t sitting in the driver’s seat, however. With their minority status likely to worsen after November and greater disarray than unity in their ranks, GOP lawmakers don’t have much to grab hold of as they look toward August. But they said they do feel emboldened by their months-long effort to convince voters that they are worried about fuel costs and that their plan is better than the Democratic one.

Asked whether the GOP’s success on the gas price issue is enough to turn the tide for the party heading into the recess, Sen. Richard Burr (R-N.C.) put it this way: “The fact is, we probably wouldn’t do too good today, but I wouldn’t count us out when we get to November.”

Congressional Democrats conceded they could have moved more quickly to put gas prices atop their legislative priority list this summer, but they are now aiming to put together a plan by Aug. 3 that can pass the narrowly divided Senate. A gas price package, coupled with a housing bill and a measure to stave off cuts in Medicare payments to doctors, would arm Democrats with significant accomplishments to take to voters, they argue.

Senate Democratic Conference Secretary Patty Murray (Wash.) wouldn’t talk specifics about the Democrats’ strategy for the coming weeks but said energy and housing will top the list. She said that “what’s most important is we leave here with [voters] knowing what we stand for.”

“I think they will see and know we are working really hard in the face of huge obstacles here,” she said, noting that “one Senator can bring the place down.”

Even the Democrats’ decision to move to an oil market speculation bill has been fraught with uncertainty. Democratic Senate aides predicted that Republican objections would prevent them from moving to the measure until next week, and it remained unclear whether the majority would seek to expand it or whether Reid would prevent both parties from offering amendments.

Democratic Conference Vice Chairman Charles Schumer (N.Y.) hinted Wednesday that the speculation measure “may be broader than that. We have amendments.” But other Democrats said it was more likely that Reid would attempt to have an up-or-down vote on just the bill — a move that is likely to inflame Republicans who have repeatedly complained that they have been shut out of the legislative process.

A Republican Senator who asked to remain anonymous strongly suggested that the minority might use the rules to block any effort to bring up bills other than ones related to gas prices and energy policy. Republicans want to offer their gas price proposals that rely heavily on expanded domestic oil and gas drilling.

One senior House Democratic aide said that while the House can pass its proposals with relative ease, the challenges from Republicans in the Senate are certain to pose problems for the majority. In the end, this staffer said, Democrats might have to swallow a compromise to clear a gas-price remedy before leaving town.

“We have to get something done — I don’t know what it will be — but we will get something,” this staffer said.

Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) acknowledged that some have criticized Democrats’ response to the energy issue, but he said Republicans are only offering ideas that would take years to make any difference, if at all.

“We are determined to walk out of here showing that we are responding more immediately to a concrete issue, which is the pain people are feeling at the pump,” he said.

With energy and low-income heating assistance taking up the bulk of next week, the Defense authorization and appropriations bills will likely be on tap the week of July 28, aides said. Reid has put Senators on notice that the weekend of July 25 will be devoted to overcoming Coburn’s objections to a host of minor bills that will be packaged into one measure.

It was unclear whether a tax extenders bill as well as a conference report on the Consumer Product Safety Commission reauthorization would make the cut this work period. Reid included both those measures on his to-do list for this month when Congress returned from the July Fourth recess, but aides indicated those measures might be held over until September.

One Democratic aide said the media shield law would likely end up falling by the wayside as well.

With the exit strategies being worked out on both sides, House and Senate Democratic leadership staff also plan to huddle today on a message for the next two weeks and beyond that they hope will translate into political gain before their party’s convention in Denver. Democrats are aiming to craft a unified communications strategy that, along with their party’s presidential candidate, Sen. Barack Obama (Ill.), will give them a boost for the next six weeks.

House Democrats will try to dovetail with whatever message plan comes together by enlisting their Members to hold energy town halls throughout August in their districts. They hope those forums will give the electorate a sense that Democrats — even while on summer break — share their concern about gas prices.

“The 30,000-foot message is still the 30,000-foot message, which is Democrats are leading the way for change,” said a Senate Democratic leadership aide. “We’ve made progress, and there’s still more to do.”

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