Senate Must-Do List Is Shrinking

Posted July 23, 2008 at 6:35pm

Senate Democrats still have a long list of priorities to slog through before they leave at the end of next week for the August recess, but the partisan stalemate over energy prices might prevent them from doing much.

Although some items have dropped off the Democrats’ to-do list, Majority Whip Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) said the Senate needs to deal with the oil market speculation bill on the floor, a massive housing measure that includes a rescue plan for mortgage giants Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, legislation to increase funding for low-income home heating assistance, tax extenders, and an omnibus package of minor bills designed to overcome the objections of Sen. Tom Coburn (R-Okla.).

“We have 10 days maybe until we leave,” Durbin said. “So, that’s a lot.”

The Senate probably will sidestep a Defense Department authorization measure, as Durbin said it would be too difficult to forge a bipartisan agreement on the number and type of amendments. He also said consideration of a bill intended to shield journalists from some subpoenas would likely be pushed to September.

But the continuing impasse between Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) and Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) over how to move forward on an oil market speculation bill threatens the entire Democratic agenda except for the housing measure, which for procedural reasons cannot be blocked from consideration.

As of press time, McConnell said he still thought “an agreement is possible” on amendments to the energy measure, but Democrats were not optimistic and predicted that the issue would end Friday with a GOP-led filibuster. Republicans have been seeking to offer as many as 28 amendments, while Democrats have sought to limit the number to two on each side.

If Reid and McConnell cannot agree on a framework for amendments on offshore oil drilling, nuclear power and other issues, McConnell told reporters Wednesday that the GOP Conference intends to block all other legislation.

“We think there’s nothing more important that we could do right now than deal with the No. 1 issue in the country,” McConnell said, referring to high gas prices and the oil speculation bill. He added, “The Senate’s going to be in session after the August recess. We have time to do other things.”

Holding GOP Senators together on many of the bills Democrats have slated for action might be difficult in this election year. Several Northeastern Republicans would be hard-pressed to oppose increased funding for the low-income heating assistance program, for example.

Similarly, the Coburn-inspired omnibus includes many measures that have been co-sponsored by Republicans. Plus, Reid made it an uncomfortable measure to oppose by including bills dealing with unsolved hate crimes from the civil rights era, programs for homeless youths and a registry for patients with Lou Gehrig’s disease.

One measure that possibly could move — the tax extender legislation — has been stymied for months by a partisan dispute over whether and how to pay for the extensions of several current tax breaks, including some for renewable energy. In the past, Democrats have fallen four votes short of the 60 they need to overcome a filibuster.

One Senate Democratic leadership aide said Democrats were working two angles on the tax extender measure. While they are attempting to reach an agreement on offsets with Republican leaders, they also have reached out to individual GOP Senators to see what it would take to get 60 votes, the aide said.

Because it will arrive in the Senate under privileged rules, the housing measure will likely pass overwhelmingly by Saturday at the latest, despite a threatened delay by Sen. Jim DeMint (R-S.C.).