War Casts Pall Over Agenda

Posted March 7, 2003 at 6:06pm

With the nation’s attention increasingly focused on a potential war with Iraq, House and Senate leaders have begun examining how such a conflict might alter Congress’ schedule and legislative agenda.

On the House side, Republican leaders could quickly change the calendar to add more work days, while their Senate counterparts would likely shift the legislative lineup in order to avoid the outbreak of partisan squabbles.

In their discussions with colleagues about how to deal with a war, House Republican leaders have picked up a clear sentiment that Members want to be on Capitol Hill hard at work rather than in their districts. The subject arose at last month’s Republican retreat and has come up more frequently in recent internal GOP discussions.

“Members would prefer to be in Washington more rather than less” if war breaks out, according to Burson Taylor, spokeswoman for Majority Whip Roy Blunt (R-Mo.), “because it gives them quicker access to information” and would make them readily available in case there is an important vote on a war-related matter such as an emergency supplemental spending bill.

Blunt and Majority Leader Tom DeLay (R-Texas) have been studying the example of the first Gulf War for clues about how the House should conduct itself if another conflict begins. And the lessons they have drawn are as much about what Congress should not do as what it should.

“In the [first] Gulf War the House didn’t meet very much,” said DeLay spokesman Stuart Roy. “After the Gulf War there was a perception of a vacuum on the domestic front, and we want to make sure that doesn’t happen.”

To that end, Roy said Republican leaders were developing a “dual-track strategy” for a potential war.

“We will work with the president” on war-related issues “and at the same time we can aggressively pursue a domestic agenda,” said Roy. That way, when the war ends “we will have taken care of the domestic front,” particularly in regards to homeland security, strengthening the economy and keeping the budget and appropriations processes on track.

As for scheduling, DeLay and Blunt have begun reviewing the calendar looking at “district work” days they could take back if a war starts. Aside from days when important field hearings were scheduled, leaders would likely consider almost any recess period fair game.

Privately, aides and Members admitted that, in addition to dealing with substantive matters, scheduling extra work time was also about perception. Voters might not look too kindly on lawmakers dawdling in their districts raising money and touting road projects while American troops are fighting overseas.

On the Senate side, leaders are already preparing for a dramatic shift in the current plans for how to proceed with legislation if a war starts.

If fighting in Iraq begins, Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-Tenn.) said, “That will become the number one priority of the United States Senate.”

His counterpart, Minority Leader Thomas Daschle (D-S.D.), expects nothing less. “I think it would be important to even reconsider what we bring up on the floor,” he said last week.

“If you’re involved in a war, that changes everything,” said Sen. Byron Dorgan (D-N.D.), a Daschle ally in Democratic leadership.

Frist said his current schedule for legislation on the Senate floor would be quickly scrapped and revised to address the needs of the war effort.

He would expect to immediately take up a sense of the Senate resolution expressing support for U.S. troops in harm’s way, as has been customarily done after recent military campaigns have begun.

Soon after the war begins, Frist said he expects to receive a supplemental spending request for the war effort from President Bush, something that will likely be the second order of business after the war resolution.

“That will be addressed immediately,” he said.

That would delay a timeline for issues Frist had planned to address in the next month. This week he wants to take up the bill to outlaw so-called partial-birth abortions, while the Senate Budget Committee pushes through Bush’s annual budget proposal later in the week, possibly Thursday.

Under that timetable, Frist expects to bring the budget resolution to the floor the week of March 17. Once the budget passed on the floor, Frist had intended to move to medical liability reform, a key political issue for Republicans.

However, the budget battle is usually a highly charged, partisan squabble, and most lawmakers think it would appear unseemly to have a food fight on the Senate floor if war breaks out in mid-March. “I don’t think it’s the best time to be debating a budget,” conceded Sen. Kent Conrad (D-N.D.), the ranking member on Budget.

One GOP aide who has researched how the Senate handled its duties during the Gulf War of 1991 said the chamber did virtually no work not related to that war effort until March, after the fighting had essentially stopped.

With fighting beginning in January, the first Gulf War did throw a wrench in the works of the 102nd Congress’ early schedule. Committee assignments and other organizing activities in both chambers were delayed, and an ambitious legislative agenda had to be temporarily shelved.

Like their House counterparts, Senate Republicans do not expect a similar layoff from domestic work this time around.

Senators and GOP aides say their chamber desperately needs to pass a budget resolution as quickly as possible to pave the way for passage of Bush’s tax cut and consideration of Medicare reform and other key issues. They said it is also critically important to pass a budget for symbolic political reasons, with Senate Republicans eager to show that they can govern and pass a budget to create a contrast with Democrats, who had 51 Senators in 2002 (the same number the GOP has this year), but could not pass a budget resolution.

With those factors in mind, aides expect Frist will not delay bringing the budget resolution to the floor.

As for the actual number of days the chamber will be in session, Senate leaders plan to take a wait-and-see approach.

“There are no plans to change anything right now with regard to the April recess,” said Frist spokesman Paul Jacobson. “On the other hand no schedule is cast in concrete.”