Road to Perdition?

Posted April 5, 2004 at 6:10pm

If, as the old saying goes, the road to that sweltering world down below is paved with good intentions, one might wonder where the 108th Congress is headed this year.

While the GOP majorities in both chambers intended to get the budget resolution conferenced and passed last week, budget writers threw up their hands, and the House left town for a two-week spring break recess.

A budget resolution would have allowed the Appropriations panels to begin divvying up $800 billion-plus in discretionary spending among their 13 subcommittees, which would have gotten the wheels of the spending bills turning more than two months earlier than last year.

Even though Congress will miss its April 15 deadline for the budget resolution given that both chambers will be recessed next week, House Appropriations spokesman John Scofield warned that it’s a little too early to lose optimism on the appropriations front.

“We kind of know where we’re headed,” said Scofield. “We’ve already started our drills.”

Those “drills” are largely staff meetings of brainstorming “scenarios for what it’ll take to get a passable bill,” Scofield said.

It appears to be increasingly less likely that appropriators will be able to repeat last year’s trick of dipping into the president’s $400 billion defense funding request to pay for other domestic programs. That’s why Scofield acknowledges that coming up with passable spending bills — other than Defense and Homeland Security — will be no easy task.

Still, the plan is to begin marking up appropriations bills by June 1, with the awfully good intention of having all 13 measures enacted by the beginning of the new fiscal year on Oct. 1.

Why else did you think that both House Appropriations Chairman Bill Young (R-Fla.) and Senate Appropriations Chairman Ted Stevens (R-Alaska) were touting plans to wrap the 13 bills into an omnibus before the threat of a lame-duck session appeared evident?

Even with the master plan to begin markups by June 1, it’s worth noting that last year’s budget resolution passed relatively early, on April 11, 2003, and most of the spending bills still weren’t enacted until January of this year.

Indeed, Stevens predicted more than a week ago that Democrats’ current refusal to allow the Senate to go to conference on most bills would “hit the appropriations process like a Mack truck.”

And the Senate is really where all the well-intentioned plans on both sides of the aisle seem to have gone amok.

Just last week, Senate Majority Whip Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) noted, “The status in the Senate right now is total gridlock.”

Despite the still-deepening partisan tensions, Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-Tenn.) gave it the old college try in bringing up an international tax bill to deal with European trade sanctions as well as a bill to reauthorize the 1996 Welfare to Work Act.

But his Hail Mary passes in the form of cloture motions requiring 60 votes fell far short of the goal line, and some GOP lawmakers privately groused that Frist wasn’t giving either measure enough time to play out on the floor.

While the welfare bill appears dead for the year (a long-term extension of current law is the likely and preferred outcome for many Republicans), Frist hopes to bring up the international tax bill again this week.

Given that the Senate is only scheduled to have votes on Wednesday and Thursday, the outlook is grim, especially since Democrats are still insisting on having an amendment on overtime regulations attached to it.

The prognosis is similarly murky for a pension conference report that passed the House last week and may be one of the few bicameral agreements to make it onto either chamber’s floor this year. Senate Democrats are not happy with how it deals with multi-employer retirement plans, but Republicans are banking on pressure from single-employer beneficiaries of the bill to swing the vote their way.

Meanwhile, Frist will force the Senate to vote again on a bill to limit cash awards in medical malpractice suits involving obstetrician/gynecologists and emergency room doctors.

Two previous attempts on similar measures have failed due to a Democrat-led filibuster, and Senate Republicans appear to be under no illusions that Wednesday’s vote will be any different.

Lest anyone think they have been let off the hook just because they are in the minority, even Senate Democrats’ “good intentions” seem to have gotten waylaid this session as well.

They intended to force votes on amendments to raise the minimum wage and block the Labor Department’s proposed overtime regulations. But presented with a deal to have those votes, if only they would allow conferees to be appointed to the welfare bill, Democrats backed out.

On the bright side, Democrats did drop their opposition to all conference committees last week by allowing conferees to be appointed on the Coast Guard reauthorization bill.

Senate GOP leaders credit Commerce, Science and Transportation Chairman John McCain (R-Ariz.) with that small coup, and they are hoping he can work similar conference magic this week when they bring up a bill to stiffen fines for broadcasting indecent material.

That bill is expected to pass by voice vote, perhaps making it a less attractive target for Democrats.