With a number of GOP incumbents facing difficult re-election contests this year, Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-Tenn.) and Majority Whip Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) have scrapped plans to keep the Senate in session through the beginning of October, and will instead look to wrap up work on as many appropriations bills and other “must pass” measures before Sept. 27, GOP aides said.
In adjusting the calendar, Frist is aiming to give Members as much time in their home states as possible. The Majority Leader also is hoping to stick to his pledge to complete the work of the 109th Congress by Thanksgiving and is planning a brief week-and-a-half work session following the elections to wrap up work on outstanding appropriations bills.
Of course, as Hurricane Katrina demonstrated last year, much of the schedule, and the two parties’ political plans, are largely at the mercy of circumstance. With the peak hurricane season approaching, another series of devastating storms, like last year’s, would almost certainly force Frist to scrap his plans.
Likewise, if the situation in Iraq deteriorates, or if a new round of scandals hits, changes to both the agenda and political calculus would be required.
In addition, the difficulties of running the Senate — something former Majority Leader Trent Lott (R-Miss.) has compared to “herding cats” — also will present significant challenges to Frist.
Although Senate GOP and Democratic aides said adjourning by the end of September is an admirable goal, most sources are quick to point out that Frist and other leaders have traditionally made similar vows, only to end up having to break them.
For instance, one GOP aide noted, that while “they’re going to do everything they can to get us out by Oct. 1 ... I’ve heard that before, so I’m not buying any nonrefundable tickets for Oct. 2.”
House Republican leadership aides were similarly skeptical of Frist’s plan for a relatively early adjournment.
“We welcome the Senate’s efforts to get their work done as soon as possible,” said a House GOP leadership aide. “We appreciate their assistance. We hope when we get our work done, they’ll be able to get theirs done.”
House Majority Leader John Boehner (R-Ohio) surprised some of his colleagues in May when he predicted that the House would leave town on the chamber’s scheduled adjournment date of Oct. 6, then return to the Capitol for a very lengthy post-election session.
“We’re going to be here until Christmas,” Boehner said.
The statement took some Members aback, not because they doubted Congress would be here in December, but because leaders traditionally say publicly that they will finish their work on time to keep pressure on the House to continue moving legislation.
While Boehner has been blunt about the House’s prospects for avoiding a lame-duck session, the chamber is actually better positioned than the Senate is to finish in October.
The House already has passed 10 of its 11 appropriations bills, though Republican leaders have hit a snag in their efforts to pass the Labor, Health and Human Services and Education spending bill. The measure became tied up when Democrats and some moderate Republicans vowed to attach a politically popular minimum-wage hike.
That, and a handful of other disputes, prevented the Labor-HHS measure from hitting the House floor, and aides said privately that it may not pass before the November elections.
Beyond appropriations, the House could conceivably deal with the remaining legislative priorities faster than the Senate could, since bills rarely take more than a day or two to pass the House once they hit the floor, whereas contentious measures in the Senate easily can eat up a week or more.
Unlike the past several stretches of work in the Senate, Frist is hoping to focus less on divisive political issues such as gay marriage and more on bread-and-butter legislation with a heavy emphasis on national security and defense spending, as well as economic issues, a senior leadership aide said.
Frist wants to “give Members something to take home” during the upcoming August recess and the October lead-up to Election Day. However, with both Frist and Speaker Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.) looking to complete new legislation governing terrorist-suspect tribunals as soon as possible, partisans in both camps will still get a chance to lob political bombs from the floor this month.
The Senate also will finally take up controversial stem-cell research legislation, which has been a lightning rod for partisan attacks. The issue also has prompted deep splits within the GOP between social conservatives and many others in the Republican Party.
Nevertheless, much of this month’s floor schedule will be built around the appropriations process, with the Homeland Security spending bill leading off this week. Frist also would like to wrap up the Defense and the military construction-Veterans Affairs spending bills as soon as possible, although it is unclear how many of those measures — not to mention any other spending bills in the pipeline — can be finished before the August break.
Although shaving off the extra week in October from the Senate schedule likely would increase pressure on appropriators, Senate leaders are not looking to force Appropriations Chairman Thad Cochran (R-Miss.) to move an early omnibus package in September or to deviate significantly from the traditional legislative process.
While a continuing resolution will be necessary to avoid a government shutdown, Frist hopes to have the bulk of the spending measures far enough along so the Senate can devote most of the week and a half in November it is to be in session to pushing through conference reports.
At the same time, Frist is hoping to tackle a number of kitchen-table economic issues during July and September, the leadership aide said. For instance, as soon as this week, a special energy task force Frist put together earlier this year to produce a new energy bill that targets consumer prices could wrap up work on its legislative proposal.
Frist and Hastert also have reportedly discussed finishing up a bill on sexual predators by July 27, the anniversary of the disappearance of “America’s Most Wanted” host John Walsh’s child. Frist also plans to revive his small-business health plans as part of this economic push and will attempt to cast the fight over an extension of the estate tax repeal in an economic light by arguing that it is a jobs-creation measure.
Despite pressure from outside groups, however, it is appearing less likely that either the estate tax measure or immigration reform legislation will be completed before October. Frist is not scheduling any further floor time for either measure at this point, preferring to take a wait-and-see approach to allow behind- the-scenes talks to develop in the hope that a deal can be brokered
Frist also hopes to continue to push through as many of President Bush’s judicial nominees as possible. While it appears unlikely that particularly controversial nominees will see floor consideration this year, the GOP expects to fill a number of vacancies before October.
Judges also will play a part in a political offensive Frist is planning on behalf of GOP incumbents, aides said. And unlike the 2004 election, when they bemoaned Democratic obstruction, the GOP this fall will likely emphasize its prowess in getting nominees confirmed.