Frist Eyes Nov. 7 Adjournment

Posted October 17, 2003 at 6:14pm

Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-Tenn.) told political supporters in an e-mail last week that he was “aiming to get out around November 7th,” giving the chamber three weeks to tie up loose ends on major legislation such as energy and Medicare reform.

With the Senate focusing all of its efforts on approving a handful of high-profile issues before it adjourns, action on controversial topics such as abortion, cloning and outlawing discriminatory employment practices based on sexual orientation will likely have to wait until next year.

Frantic conference negotiations on the Medicare and energy legislation — as well as the $87 billion Iraq supplemental and the remaining appropriations bills — have left very little fuel for dozens of other pending bills that are critical to the political bases of both parties.

Very few of these second-tier bills — as well as many of President Bush’s nominations — have a chance of passing, which could pose a particularly difficult political dilemma for Congressional GOP leaders heading into the 2004 elections.

But Republican leaders believe they may be able to approve a ban on the procedure known as partial-birth abortion in the coming weeks, which they believe will help build the foundation to address other abortion-related bills next year.

“If we get partial-birth abortion done that is a huge thing that no one expected this year,” said Senate GOP Conference Chairman Rick Santorum (Pa.).

Even if the Senate approves legislation banning partial-birth abortion, not all anti-abortion rights activists will be satisfied. The Senate is expected to adjourn without addressing several bills designed to protect the unborn.

Sen. Sam Brownback (R-Kan.) has a bill on the Senate calendar that would prevent physicians from using military facilities to perform an abortion without parental consent. And Sen. Mike DeWine (R-Ohio) has introduced legislation that would make it a crime to kill an unborn child while in the act of committing another crime.

“We are very disappointed that the DeWine bill is not going to get a vote in the first session of this Congress as we expected,” said Jim Backlin, director of legislative affairs for the the Christian Coalition of America. “Now it is going to be pushed back to the second session and there are so many things that are going to to have to be passed in the election year.”

Historically, very little is accomplished in an election year, as both political parties govern in a manner so as to appeal to their individual political bases.

“Next year is going to be a minimum of policy and maximum of politics,” predicted Sen. Dick Durbin (D-Ill.). “People just start positioning themselves for the presidential election and you are going to find Members of Congress in both parties supporting those candidates’ message with issues they push on the floor. And the Senate is designed for nothing to happen when you don’t have a major consensus.”

Republicans control the Senate by a razor-thin margin and fall far short of the 60 votes needed to override Democratic objections to approve legislation and nominees.

This has been no more evident than in Republican attempts to confirm several of Bush’s judicial nominees that are opposed by Democratic Senators. The GOP is promoting legislation that would lower the filibuster threshold to overcome the Democratic objections. But the measure requires 60 votes.

The bill has been on the calendar since June 26, and so far Frist has not yet brought it up for a vote. Many Republicans, including Senate Rules and Administration Chairman Trent Lott (Miss.), said the GOP needs to address this matter to show voters that Democrats are “obstructing” Bush’s nominees.

“It was the only issue when I was home that people came up to me and initiated the conversation,” said Lott. “We do have legislation out of the Rules Committee and [Frist] may want to call it up. We have got to show we are trying. We cannot let this precedent be set in history without a major effort.”

Even though Democrats do not control the majority, they too must show good faith efforts in trying to muscle through legislation favored by their supporters. Union leaders want Congress to approve an increase in the minimum wage.

“Working families that depend on minimum wage jobs have waited a record breaking eight years for a raise,” said Chuck Loveless of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees.

“Now President Bush and Congress want to drag their feet and run out the clock to deny these workers a livable wage. They have had time to pass tax break after tax break for the rich, shame on them if they can not find the time to pass a wage increase for the 12 million Americans that need it most.”

Sen. Edward Kennedy (D-Mass.) suggested that efforts to increase the minimum wage might not be over. “Don’t throw us over the side yet on minimum wage,” he said. “We could still have it on a continuing resolution.”

While Democrats and Republicans are not able to concur on many legislative solutions, their strategy when speaking to their respective political bases sounds the same when they explain why issues have stalled.

“We remind them if we were in the majority they would have been done,” said Senate Minority Leader Tom Daschle (D-S.D.).

Santorum said he advises GOP activists that “we are going to need more Republicans to get that done.

“I say, ‘Look, if you want us to pass some more judges and you don’t want a meltdown on the Supreme Court, then give us some more Republican Senators and we can get it done.’”

In addition to approving the four main legislative tasks, Republican leaders are holding out hope that they can also pass other measures such as their faith-based bill, healthy forest initiative and legislation to compensate victims sickened by asbestos exposure.

But there does not appear to be any appetite in these closing weeks to tackle the controversial topic of human cloning.

As for this week’s schedule, Frist aides said he was still weighing whether to begin action on the wildfire prevention measure or class-action reform.

Though both bills have some bipartisan support, there are still a number of Senate Democrats who oppose both measures and who have threatened to either filibuster the bills or draw out the floor debate.

The House expects to have a relatively short week with the last major floor action occurring on Tuesday. Both Monday and Tuesday will feature a slew of relatively non-controversial suspension calendar bills.

But House Majority Leader Tom DeLay (R-Texas) said he hopes the House may also be able to act on any conference reports that may be finalized, such as those on various spending bills and the energy bill.

Both chambers also may act on a continuing resolution to keep the government running through Nov. 7. The current CR expires Oct. 31.

Emily Pierce and Nicole Duran contributed to this report.