Roadmap: Legislative Olio

Posted October 27, 2003 at 6:38pm

As lawmakers await deals on Medicare, energy and fiscal 2004 spending bills, the Senate this week is set to tackle a handful of issues that could draw attention to intraparty rifts between the Republican-controlled Congress and the Bush White House, as well as showcasing spats among Republicans on the Capitol campus.

Indeed, with everything from spending bills carrying contentious policy riders to Internet taxes and judicial

nominees on the table, there’s something for everyone in the hodgepodge of items on the House and Senate agendas this week.

While many of those battles are unavoidable, Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-Tenn.) may have opened up the Senate floor to more internal and partisan fights by abandoning his original plan to wrap all unfinished appropriations bills into a dreaded omnibus.

Senate GOP leaders still acknowledge an omnibus is the most likely vehicle for getting the trickier spending bills to the president’s desk. But Frist last week acceded to appropriators’ demands that individual bills first be debated on the floor to give the Senate a stronger hand at the House-Senate negotiating table. (The downside of that strategy is that a slew of major and minor funding fights will play out on the Senate floor rather than behind closed doors.)

The ambitious agenda Frist set for this week began Monday with debate on an $18 billion foreign operations appropriations bill. On that bill, the Senate could continue its current trend of staring down White House opposition by adopting a Sen. Mike DeWine (R-Ohio) proposal to increase funding to combat global AIDS, tuberculosis and malaria.

Both Republicans and Democrats have been critical of the White House’s decision to lowball its request for AIDS funding, after pushing through a bill that authorized much more money earlier this year.

Though less sexy, a DeWine win would follow last week’s vote to buck the Bush administration’s Cuba travel ban and the Iraq supplemental vote to require the administration to turn some reconstruction funds into loans.

If Frist can get the foreign operations bill to final passage by mid-week, word is he’ll try to move to the spending bill for veterans, housing and other federal agencies. And again the stage is set for Senate Republicans to make their opposition to White House funding priorities known in the form of a proposal to increase veterans medical funding.

If the Senate continues on its current track of individual appropriations bills, down the pike are potentially explosive floor fights over school vouchers for the District of Columbia and Federal Communication Commission rules to expand media ownership.

But don’t be surprised if a little partisan uprising — in the form of Democrats dragging out debate on some of the spending bills — causes Frist to return to his omnibus strategy and yank the individual bills. There’s plenty of other stuff he either wants to (or has to) do this week.

Indeed, Senate Republicans will be scrambling to patch up an internal rift over whether to permanently ban state taxes on Internet connections. The current moratorium on such taxes expires on Saturday, and Sen. George Allen (R-Va.) has been furiously trying to convince Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.) to allow the measure to come up on the floor under a time agreement. Alexander hasn’t been budging, and other opponents of the bill — Sens. George Voinovich (R-Ohio), Maria Cantwell (D-Wash.) and Kent Conrad (D-N.D.) — are making noises as well. However, one senior Senate GOP aide said Voinovich, Cantwell and Conrad would likely allow the Senate to pass a 5-year temporary moratorium, while Alexander appears insistent on scuttling the bill, according to a senior GOP aide.

Allen, along with allies Sens. John McCain (R-Ariz.) and John Sununu (R-N.H.), have mainly been trying to run interference with Alexander to avoid a potentially awkward situation in which Frist (Alexander’s home-state colleague) would have to oppose him.

It seems Alexander’s primary motivation for fighting the bill is that state government interests in Tennessee oppose the moratorium. That begs the question: Why didn’t the Tennessee government types get Frist to carry their water, or is his Majority Leader job creating some sticky conflicts for him?

And it could get more uncomfortable if Frist tries to overcome an Alexander-led filibuster by filing a cloture motion on the Internet tax measure early this week. As of late last week, Allen said the cloture option was just one of several solutions he was pursuing with Senate Republican leaders.

Judge Not

If the Republican-versus-Republican tilts don’t suit your fancy, you can take in a more traditional Democrat-Republican bout during this week’s scheduled judicial nomination fight. This week, Charles Pickering’s ongoing quest to become a judge on the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals is expected to top the card.

Democrats are still incredulous that Pickering, whom some in the minority accuse of having a dubious record on civil rights issues, was renominated after his biggest backer and fellow Mississippian Trent Lott (R) lost his spot as incoming Majority Leader over comments that were regarded as racially insensitive.

With the dividing line between Pickering supporters and opponents drawn on race, it’s sure to be a raucous row that in all likelihood will end in a Democratic filibuster. If that happens, Pickering will be the fourth judicial nominee to be filibustered by Democrats this year.

Partisan passions may also reach a flashpoint over the issue of wildfire prevention. With raging fires destroying lives and homes in well-populated areas of Southern California, Frist could decide to bring up the Senate’s version of President Bush’s “Healthy Forests” initiative. So far he’s been loath to start debate on the measure because some Democrats have threatened to attempt a filibuster and/or add unrelated amendments, such as a proposal to increase the minimum wage.

House Call

With all the potentially juicy Senate action, House Republicans are trying to keep busy while lobbing the occasional barb at Senate Democrats. The House floor agenda will be dominated by noncontroversial suspension calendar items this week, as it often has been for the past few weeks.

However, not everybody in the House is waiting for the Senate to act. Key House Members are hip-deep in the seesawing conference committees on Medicare, energy and spending bills, where it seems every day brings new staffer prognostications that they’re either “close to agreement” or “close to total breakdown.”

House-Senate talks on the $87 billion Iraq supplemental could wrap up as early as today, now that all the conferees appear to have agreed to strip out the Senate’s loan provisions. It’s still anybody’s guess how they prevail on the House and Senate floors in the end, but it will surely take some impressive negotiating skills on the part of the White House.

Conversely, negotiations on individual spending bills that are still languishing in conference bode ill for future omnibus talks, given that even the military construction spending bill — traditionally the easiest measure to pass next to funding for Congress itself — is mired in controversy over which projects to fund in the scaled-down bill.

Meanwhile, Senate Finance Chairman Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) and House Ways and Means Chairman Bill Thomas (R-Calif.) aren’t giving the appropriators any reason to rush to agreement, considering the two chairmen’s continuing inability to settle their disputes on the Medicare bill and tax provisions in the energy measure.

To top it all off, House and Senate Republican leaders this week have to decide how long they want to give all those negotiators before they let the next stop-gap funding measure expire. The current continuing resolution that’s keeping the government running expires on Halloween, and while Republican leaders say their new target adjournment date is Nov. 7, it looks increasingly like Congress will be lucky to get out of town before the next big holiday — Thanksgiving.

Of course, don’t expect this week’s CR to last that long. The best bet is for a CR that expires Nov. 14 or 15.