Forecasting the Adjournment

Posted November 17, 2003 at 6:41pm

While Republican leaders can clearly see the light at the end of the tunnel, they are undoubtedly aware that the piercing rays bearing down on them are coming, not from the warming, dewy sunlight of an exit, but from an overloaded freight train of legislation.

Indeed, House-Senate deals on both a Medicare

prescription drug bill and an energy policy measure over the weekend have made the notion of adjourning by the end of this week actually seem reasonable. But the load that has to be carried by both chambers in just four or five days may prove too difficult to finish, especially given the increased partisan tensions in both chambers — and especially in the Senate.

The signs are still mixed on whether lawmakers will be able to wrap everything up, including those must-pass appropriations bills about which Republicans still appear to be arguing among themselves.

On the one hand, Jonathan Grella, spokesman for House Majority Leader Tom DeLay (R-Texas), did not equivocate when he said Monday, “We expect to complete our business this week.”

That could mean staying until Saturday, according to GOP aides in both chambers. But hey, Saturday is still technically “this week.”

On the other hand, Senate Minority Leader Tom Daschle (D-S.D.) indicated last week that Senate Democrats will want to take their time debating the controversial conference reports on energy and Medicare. And it remains to be seen what problems will crop up on appropriations bills.

Plus, chief energy bill negotiator Sen. Pete Domenici (R-N.M.) referred last week to next week’s Turkey Day as an upcoming “vacation.” (It’s not a good sign when Thanksgiving is considered just a Congressional “vacation” and not the end of the line.)

Basically, the ability of Congress to adjourn this week will come down to that magical moment that seems to happen at the end of every Congressional session. No one quite knows when it will happen, but when it does, it’s like a thrilling movie where our hero disarms the ticking time bomb with just one second to spare.

If that moment happens this week, it will be apparent on Thursday or Friday, right when everything seems to be breaking down and Speaker Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.) and Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-Tenn.) are threatening to make lawmakers eat Thanksgiving dinner in the Members’ dinning room. Then, almost inexplicably, the fog will clear and so will all the legislation they’ve been trying to complete before they adjourn for the year.

Or everything will actually break down. Frist and Hastert will let Members go home for turkey and sweet potatoes, they’ll all come back pumped full of the lethargy inducing triptophan, and they could potentially stay until Dec. 19 or later. (It may be a painful thought, but it has to be said.)

Whether the magic moment comes this week depends heavily on two disparate groups.

Will Senate Democrats play ball, not just on the Medicare legislation they’ve already begun to condemn, but also on the energy bill and the still unfinished fiscal 2004 omnibus spending bill?

And can enough House conservatives swallow what they consider a watered-down Medicare bill to give their leaders the victory they need in that chamber?

As it stands now, Republicans potentially have a win-win situation on their hands with the Medicare bill. But that requires Hastert to deliver House passage. Success on that front will likely come if conservatives can be convinced to abandon their small-government ideals in favor of giving the GOP a major political and policy victory on an issue traditionally dominated by Democrats.

So, if enough House Republicans acquiesce to Hastert’s pleas and Democrats block the Medicare bill in the Senate, Republicans will be in a good position to argue that Democrats scuttled the last, best hope for providing a modicum of relief to senior citizens paying exorbitant drug prices.

And as a bonus for the GOP, failure of the bill will no doubt delight many Republicans who while publicly supporting the bill have worried about creating another huge federal entitlement program.

But if enough Senate Democrats decide to go along with the bill, Republicans can still win the public relations race. Sending the bill to President Bush would give the commander in chief — who has been under increasing pressure from the rising death toll in Iraq and a still sluggish economy — a key domestic policy victory just as the presidential election season begins to heat up.

So when Senate Democrats meet for their regular Tuesday lunch, they’ve got to figure out what scenario they can best turn around in their favor. Betting that Hastert won’t get the votes in the House might be too risky.

So far, Daschle and the Liberal Lion, Sen. Edward Kennedy (D-Mass.), appear to be leaning toward opposing the bill. But it remains to be seen whether rank-and-file Members such as Sen. Blanche Lincoln (D-Ark.) who is up for re-election, will help Democrats present a relatively unified position.

Already, the only two Democrats allowed into the Medicare talks — Senate Finance ranking member Max Baucus (Mont.) and Sen. John Breaux (La.) — are on board with Republicans.

On energy, the most likely scenario is that Senate Democrats will each go their own way, either voting for it or against it based on their own regional and re-election concerns. If that happens, it’s possible that the measure passes both chambers before the end of the week. House leaders shouldn’t have a problem winning passage when they bring it up today or Wednesday.

But even if the Medicare and energy bills are resolved this week, the expected omnibus spending bill presents big challenges for Democrats and Republicans alike. Democrats have to decide whether to block the bill if it contains a pilot school voucher program for the District of Columbia or eliminates a provision blocking the Bush administration from instituting new overtime pay rules.

Other issues, such as whether to prohibit the Federal Communications Commission from enforcing new media ownership rules, could also stymie the measure because of White House opposition.