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Endgame Lacks the Goal Posts

Though there are only three weeks left in 2009, the end is not yet in sight for Congress as Members seek to pack in as much legislation as possible before 2010 kicks off.

With time slipping away, Democratic aides on both sides of the Capitol say it’s increasingly possible that Congress will be in session between Christmas and New Year’s Day. After all, the Senate’s long slog on health care reform is likely to last at least into the week of Christmas, and both chambers are feeling an imperative to pass an outstanding Defense Department spending bill quickly. If Congress is in session the week after Christmas, however, Senate Democrats said it would likely be to deal with the Defense bill, which could take up substantial debate time given the controversy over the inclusion of a proposed $1.8 trillion increase to the federal debt limit.

Indeed, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) reiterated Friday that he still believes he can pass a massive health care reform bill by Dec. 25, even as he accused Republicans of “throwing tantrums— and delaying progress on both health care and a mammoth appropriations measure that was expected to pass after press time Sunday.

Reid also expressed optimism that the Senate would not have to be in session after the Christmas holiday. “You asked me if I could complete everything by Christmas? I think the answer’s ‘yes,’— Reid said Friday.

But even Reid said earlier last week that the endgame on health care remained “a jump ball,— given he must wait for the Congressional Budget Office to complete an official cost estimate of a compromise he hopes will unite Democrats behind the package and allow him to begin the time-consuming procedural process that could lead to final passage.

Democratic aides have estimated that they need six to nine days to overcome several filibusters Republicans are likely to attempt. That means Reid must have a CBO score and, subsequently, a deal within his own caucus by the end of this week.

Given the tight time frame Senate Democrats are working under, several rank-and-file Senators said they have started to doubt whether Reid can wrap up the health care bill in the next week and a half.

[IMGCAP(1)]Asked whether finishing before the holiday was feasible, Sen. Ben Nelson (D-Neb.) quipped, “Christmas of which year?—

Nelson, whose support has been elusive but is needed to beat back GOP filibusters, said, “I don’t see a lot of people that I work with trying to delay it, but this is a very heavy lift of a lot of moving parts and pieces that have to all come together, and that’s not an easy thing to do. I mean, you can put it all together in some sort of jumble, but that’s not looking to get it right.—

Another potential swing vote, Sen. Olympia Snowe (R-Maine) also said she worries that Senate Democratic leaders are simply rushing to beat the clock.

“It isn’t enough to say let’s get it done and not worry about the specifics that are in the legislation,— Snowe said. “The more they try to, you know, sort of drive this process in an unrealistic time frame, you know, the more reluctant I become. … I don’t think we should be concerned by this artificial timetable. There’s always January.—

The Senate’s slow-walk to the end also could wreck House Democrats’ plans to finish their work for the year on Wednesday — a date chosen to enable Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) and about 30 other Members to jet to Copenhagen for the big United Nation’s climate change conference.

But it’s the House riders to the Defense bill that are likely to force an extended Senate debate and a possible session between Christmas and New Year’s Day, given both Republican and Democratic concerns. The riders are certain to cause a robust debate this week in the House as well.

A debt limit increase of $1.8 trillion to $1.9 trillion will be included in the Defense spending bill along with a six-month extension of unemployment benefits and possibly a jobs package, House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) said Friday.

The debt limit increase, which would carry the government through the 2010 midterm elections, has the support of fiscally conservative Blue Dog Democrats, provided it is accompanied by language codifying pay-as-you-go rules.

Liberals, meanwhile, including the Congressional Black Caucus, are demanding a robust jobs package be added to the bill, including money for job training and impoverished areas in particular.

Hoyer said that in addition to six-month extensions of unemployment payments and health subsidies, other jobs-related items could be added on, including an infrastructure package, although the details remain in flux.

Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee Chairman Chris Van Hollen (Md.) said the package would include a “robust— jobs package, with more than $70 billion expected to be included for infrastructure spending alone, paid for with unspent money from the Troubled Asset Relief Program.

“We are very determined to have a focused, targeted jobs plan in this legislation,— Van Hollen said.

It was unclear whether Senate Democrats, who have been crafting their own jobs bill, would be willing to roll over and accept the House package instead. Senate Majority Whip Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) has said he envisions the Senate taking up a job creation measure sometime in January.

The Defense package also faces potential opposition from anti-war liberals in both chambers because it includes more than $100 billion for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

“It’s causing a lot of individual consternation,— said Rep. Raúl Grijalva (D-Calif.), co-chairman of the Congressional Progressive Caucus. Grijalva is pushing leadership to split the conference report into separate votes on war funding and everything else, which they have done previously.

Rep. Jim McGovern (D-Mass.), a leading opponent of the Afghanistan escalation and vice chairman of the Rules Committee, said he would also like to see separate votes. And McGovern would like to see a debate and votes early next year on the troop increase — before the bulk of the 30,000 troops are on the ground.

“Having a debate on sending 30,000 troops when the troops have already been sent is meaningless,— he said.

Hoyer said the House would insist on PAYGO rules in its negotiations with the Senate, and he said there may be room to add a fiscal commission sought by Senate Budget Chairman Kent Conrad (D-N.D.) as well.

“There’s no reason not to do both,— Hoyer said. “I think they’re complementary.—

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