Pro Forma on Tap; Lame Duck, Too?

Posted September 17, 2008 at 6:36pm

A bleak outlook for U.S. financial markets and uncertain fates for energy and economic stimulus bills have increased the likelihood that Congress might reconvene for a lame-duck session in November.

Saying he hoped such a scenario could be avoided, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) told reporters Wednesday that he would be keeping the Senate in pro forma session to allow the Banking and Finance panels to hold hearings on the fallout from the failures — and government bailouts — of major Wall Street financial firms.

“If there is a need for us to come back, we stand ready and willing to do that,” Reid said, adding that he still hoped to release Senators to campaign by next Friday, Sept. 26.

What Reid didn’t say is that he might be forced to come back if the White House does not agree to sign a continuing resolution to keep the government funded through February. Plus, he is facing pressure from some Members of his caucus who see value in coming back in November, arguing that it could put Democrats in a good position to win spending concessions from a lame-duck president looking to round out his legacy.

That could be especially important if Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) bests Sen. Barack Obama (D-Ill.) in November’s presidential election. McCain advocates reduced government spending and would likely be a tougher negotiator on spending bills in his first 100 days in office.

Still, Democratic leaders continued to insist Wednesday that they want to punt government spending decisions to the next Congress by passing a CR that expires in February.

“There is nothing good that can come of us coming back,” said one senior Senate Democratic aide.

Privately, however, there is growing sentiment among Democrats that the more realistic scenario is to pass a CR that funds the government until mid-November. Democrats say they are getting signals from the White House that it would rather have a short-term CR to maintain some leverage for last-minute Bush administration priorities such as a Colombia free-trade deal and a U.S.-India nuclear agreement.

Democratic sources warned that no decision has been made on the CR and cautioned that the outcomes of the upcoming energy and economic stimulus debates could change the calculations.

Another senior Senate Democratic aide said a deal on offshore drilling, for example, could spur Members to decide to come back for a lame-duck session to finish a House-Senate conference.

Democrats are under increasing pressure to come up with a deal, rather than simply running a political exercise during next week’s Senate energy debate, because the moratorium on offshore drilling expires at the end of the month. While the moratorium has for decades been reauthorized annually on appropriations bills, House and Senate Democratic leaders have acknowledged that they don’t have the votes to renew it on the CR this year.

Democratic aides said they are optimistic that an energy deal can be forged at some point in this Congress because both parties now generally agree that Congress should expand offshore drilling.

“It’s not terribly frequent that you get so many Members from so many different perspectives on the same page,” said the second senior Senate Democratic aide. “The question is, can we, in a difficult and highly charged short time period, get enough people on the same page?”

In just the past few days, Democrats have eked out deals that had eluded them previously. As of press time, the Senate was poised to pass a Defense Department authorization bill that had earlier seemed destined to die of a filibuster. Similarly, Reid and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) cut a deal on a long-stalled tax-extender bill. Of course, it is far from certain that the House will be able to pass the Senate agreement.

There have been wrinkles this week, however. A delay in the writing of the tax-extenders bill forced Reid to postpone action on the measure until the end of the week at the earliest. He was expected to file a motion to limit debate, or invoke cloture, on the bill last night, unless a bipartisan agreement was reached first. A cloture vote could occur Friday.

In the meantime, Reid has refocused on a package of minor bills that have been blocked by Sen. Tom Coburn (R-Okla.) and, as of press time, was planning on filing another motion to break that filibuster. In July, Senate Republicans blocked the measure from coming to the floor, arguing the Senate should focus on energy legislation. Now that Senate Republicans are poised to get the votes on drilling they have sought, the vote might be different, Democrats argued. That vote could occur Friday as well, but Reid was slated to meet with Coburn on Wednesday night in hopes of avoiding another showdown on the floor.

In the House, Democrats were moving closer to bringing a stimulus package to the floor and made some headway with Republicans on adding several appropriations bills to the CR.

Reid said Wednesday that he would likely bring up the House-passed stimulus after the Senate’s energy debate. Although Republicans have reacted coolly to the notion of another stimulus, Democrats said the deepening economic crisis could turn the tide in favor of the measure.

House Democrats said they were hoping to add appropriations bills, including Defense, military construction-Veterans Affairs, and Homeland Security, to a CR. Doing so would allow Democrats to avoid going home to charges that they had failed to provide for troops and national security while also potentially providing more leverage to carry unrelated items. It could also, conveniently for earmarking specialists, shield mounds of earmarks from significant challenges on the floor.

House Minority Whip Roy Blunt (R-Mo.) said Republicans could support adding those bills, which tend to be bipartisan, though he lamented the potential lack of an open process. Members would “be glad to go home with at least some work done,” he said. “It would be nice if we could do something besides name a post office.”

But he cautioned against adding other items that would not be able to pass on their own. Blunt derided two items on Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s (D-Calif.) wish list — Medicaid aid to states and infrastructure projects.

But Democrats were growing more hopeful that they would be able to box Republicans in on the issue — arguing that with the Bush administration bailing out Wall Street firms, they ought to support a bill aimed at shoring up Main Street.

Steven T. Dennis contributed to this report.