Things That Make You Go, “Hmmm”

Posted October 20, 2003 at 6:04pm

House and Senate GOP leaders this week may find it hard to deliver on their promises to quickly wrap up work on an energy conference report and the House-Senate compromise on the $87 billion Iraq supplemental spending bill.

Not to be too pessimistic, but it’s hard to imagine that either of those goals will be accomplished when Speaker Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.) is letting his troops go home for the week following votes tonight and Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-Tenn.) has decided to tie up the Senate floor with a contentious debate over class action lawsuits.

Even if negotiators complete work on the supplemental conference by Thursday, as hoped, the House will not be in town to consider it.

And despite Hastert’s best efforts at forcing a compromise on tax provisions in the energy bill, at press time Monday it was questionable whether he would get his wish to bring the energy conference report to the House floor tonight. (Most aides predicted that Hastert will have to wait until next week.)

With weeks like this, it’s easy to see why the endgame can be so elusive for whichever party is running Congress.

On the one hand, leaders are demanding results on high-priority items such as energy and Medicare; and on the other hand, they’re creating an atmosphere that makes it less likely they’ll get their desired results in the time they’ve specified.

Case in point: Hastert imposed today as the deadline for the energy conference to be ready for House floor action to accommodate his decision to let Members get home early this week. It may sound silly, but the knowledge that the House or Senate won’t be around to act on things often has a direct effect on whether that something gets done — i.e. it doesn’t.

And that prospect is leading to a little grumbling on the Senate side.

“The House hasn’t fessed up to the fact that they want to give their guys an eight- or nine-day recess,” noted one senior Senate GOP aide.

It’s worth pointing out, however, that the Senate was able to get itself an extra recess while the House worked during the week of Oct. 6.

In any event, it looks like the Senate’s class action debate will be the only show in town. And it’s already shaping up to be a doozy.

Republicans estimate they have at least 57 votes on their side for the bill, and of course, they’re hoping that another three Democrats will see the light and join them so they can avoid a nasty filibuster that would likely be supported by both Senate Minority Leader Tom Daschle (D-S.D.) and Minority Whip Harry Reid (D-Nev.).

Since Daschle and Reid are so invested in seeing the class action bill die, the focus this week will be squarely on Senate Democrats, as they decide whether to follow their leaders.

For most Democrats, it will be a no- brainer. Trial lawyers and consumer groups, who tend to hang with Democrats more so than Republicans, hate the class action bill, which would require more of such suits to be referred to federal courts because they tend to be less generous than state courts in their punitive monetary judgments.

But for the handful of Democrats who have been swayed by the argument that unscrupulous lawyers are bankrupting companies by forum-shopping their lawsuits to states that traditionally give mammoth settlement sums, they’re going to be asked to close ranks around the notion that the class action bill is not as pressing an agenda item as are the remaining 10 fiscal 2004 spending bills. (Three have been signed by the president, four are in conference committee, and six have yet to pass the Senate.)

“It’s going to be a tough call for a lot of Democrats,” admitted one Senate Democratic aide.

Indeed, it could put a serious dent in Republican predictions that the 60 votes they need will fall into place when or if a vote to prevent a filibuster happens (probably on Wednesday).

That’s because Daschle plans to appeal to his Caucus’ partisan side by promoting a strategy of giving as much as they got.

Remember, last year around this time, Republicans were howling about the need to finish appropriations bills — but Daschle, who was in charge of the Senate way back then, was working on various other things, not the least of which was a measure to create a Homeland Security Department.

And then, wouldn’t you know it, after they couldn’t get the spending bills done, they lost their majority in the Senate, and they punted the issue to the new Republican-controlled 108th Congress. Senate Republicans have vowed to avoid the same appropriations mess this year and thereby show Democrats how it’s really done.

So it appears that Daschle is calculating that it’s best to turn that winning Republican strategy around on his GOP foes, by accusing them of neglecting important domestic priorities by not passing more individual spending bills.

Republicans counter that there’s no longer a need to do separate spending bills, because the ones that don’t pass on their own will be wrapped into an omnibus spending bill that appropriators won’t begin working on in earnest until the supplemental conference is finished.

Even so, Democrats who support the class action bill say Daschle’s appeal will probably work well enough on the rank and file to prevent Senate Republicans from officially moving to the bill this week. It seems that even among Democrats who support the bill, their enthusiasm for it is lukewarm at best.

But just in case, Democrats have a plan B if they fail to prevent the Senate from taking the class action bill up: amend it with completely unrelated measures, such as a bill to increase the minimum wage.

Of course, Republicans will be ready for the onslaught by filing another filibuster-busting cloture motion on the bill to prevent all nongermane amendments.

All of that careful planning on both sides of the aisle could be for naught, however, if either the energy conference report or the supplemental are completed this week. If that happens, the Senate could push class action aside for one or both measures.

On the energy bill, it all comes down to those notoriously feuding tax writers, Senate Finance Chairman Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) and Ways and Means Chairman Bill Thomas (R-Calif.).

It seems their not-so-shocking inability to come to agreement on a $16 billion package of tax breaks for energy companies forced the cancellation Monday of the final conference on the energy bill.

Add to the delays Senate Energy and Natural Resources Chairman Pete Domenici’s (R-N.M.) promise to finally include Democrats in the last formal conference meeting.

It seems Domenici, who had no problem excluding Democrats from the bulk of the conference negotiations, now feels it’s only right to allow them to see the final bill, offer a few amendments that will undoubtedly be voted down by the GOP majority on the conference, and gripe about the whole process, before sending the bill on to the House and Senate floors for final approval.

Of course, things could change today if Hastert convinces Domenici to abandon his promise, the tax writers get their act together, and the conference report is signed by conferees early enough in the day for Hastert to bring it to the floor tonight.

As for the supplemental conference report, Hastert and Frist have reportedly cracked the whip and demanded that appropriators come up with a compromise by the end of this week. But with the House racing out of town and the Senate potentially bogged down in the class action bill, it’s unclear whether either leader has put enough muscle behind his demands.