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109th Likely to Close by Friday

Despite a hefty workload that includes keeping the government from shutting down and approving a new Defense secretary, Congressional leaders now say they are on track to wrap up the final days of the Republican-led 109th Congress just in time to dash out of town by the end of this week.

“With noses to the grindstone — and maybe a few slugs of heavily spiked eggnog — the Senate can finish its work by late [this] week,” Eric Ueland, chief of staff to Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-Tenn.), said Friday.

Barring any last-minute complications — and in past years, lame-duck Congresses have run into many of them — the road to adjournment appears clear in both chambers, now that House and Senate appropriators basically have acceded to passing a “clean” continuing resolution to keep the government funded until Feb. 15, and Senate leaders look ready to speed the nomination of Robert Gates to be Defense secretary through committee and floor votes this week.

House and Senate appropriations aides say they are looking to keep the CR free of extraneous issues by passing a measure that keeps the government funded through mid-February at the lowest level of either the House-passed bills or last year’s level.

“There’s a strong push to keep it as clean as possible and not start singling out any agencies,” said Jenny Manley, spokeswoman for outgoing Senate Appropriations Chairman Thad Cochran (R-Miss.).

Previously, appropriators had hinted that they at least wanted to increase the spending levels of veterans’ medical care in any CR — a scenario that could have set them on a collision course with spending-conscious GOP conservatives as well as with Members eager to boost funding in other areas.

“There’ll be a good deal of pressure from veterans to include them, but if we do that, that’s when other people start wanting to be treated the same way,” warned a Senate GOP aide.

Still, the Office of Management and Budget is working on a list of “anomalies” that must be dealt with in a long-term CR, including a provision that allows the government to cut entitlement checks before the official fiscal 2007 spending bills are approved, said John Scofield, spokesman for outgoing House Appropriations Chairman Jerry Lewis (R-Calif.).

The CR likely will pass late this week, Scofield said. It is still unclear whether the Senate will be able to separately move the fiscal 2007 military quality of life and Veterans Affairs spending bill, which has languished under a filibuster threat against naming a House-Senate conference committee.

Despite appropriators’ recent promises that the bill would not be used as a vehicle for an omnibus spending package, Senate GOP conservatives have blocked the measure from moving forward in a so-far successful attempt to prevent Congress from passing any more spending earmarks.

Still, Office of Management and Budget Director Rob Portman was making calls last week to conservatives, including Sen. Jim DeMint (R-S.C.), in an attempt to get the bill into conference in time for it to pass both chambers prior to adjournment, according to the Senate GOP aide.

But because the conference was unlikely to begin over the weekend, “the calendar is completely stacked against” getting it done, the aide said.

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