Defense, Energy Set Aside for Reagan Tributes

Posted June 7, 2004 at 5:54pm

With election-year pressures already tightening the screws on the schedule, Congress can ill afford to lose a week of legislating. But unlike the legislative stalemates that have kept Republican leaders from passing a bicameral budget or enacting a crucial reauthorization of highway funds — to name but two languishing pieces of business — the death this weekend of former President Ronald Reagan obliges lawmakers to put down their partisan sabers for a period of national mourning.

Reagan’s death has brought Capitol Hill to a standstill this week. The only expected votes in both chambers will come on non-controversial resolutions honoring Reagan’s legacy and allowing his body to lie in state in the Rotunda on Wednesday and Thursday. [IMGCAP(1)]

It’s no big scheduling loss for the House, where Republicans had only planned to bring up energy legislation they already passed last year. It was all part of the largely symbolic “Energy Week,” which House GOP leaders said would have put pressure on their Senate counterparts to send the president the energy bill conference report that fell two votes short in that chamber last fall.

“Energy Week” was also seen as a way to provide lawmakers with largely rhetorical evidence that they are doing something about rising gasoline prices by again passing the $31 billion measure.

Jonathan Grella, spokesman for House Majority Leader Tom DeLay (R-Texas), said it was unclear whether “Energy Week” would occur next week or if other business would take precedence.

The Senate — already suffering from crippling partisan gridlock and scheduling decisions which have seen bills appearing on and disappearing from the floor almost faster than Democrats can decide to filibuster them — will likely feel the loss of a week’s work more profoundly.

Breaking with his penchant for insisting that bills be passed within two days or pulled from the Senate schedule, Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-Tenn.) had planned to stay on the Defense Department reauthorization bill for three weeks. That, of course, came after he tried to interrupt the Defense debate last week with a class-action bill but was rebuffed by Democrats.

But in order to give all 100 Senators ample time to eulogize Reagan, the chamber won’t be able to use this week to bring the Defense bill to a close, as was Frist’s hope.

That means that the much-ballyhooed votes on “bunker-busting” nuclear bombs and increasing the size of the military will have to wait until next week — and the loss of the Defense bill’s momentum could drag debate into the week of June 21.

The domino effect will also push back the Senate’s consideration of that class-action bill, which Frist said he would bring up as soon as the Defense debate is done.

And if votes on the Defense bill and class action are too controversial during a week designed to grieve for a revered former president and conservative icon, it’s probably not the best time to bring up the highly partisan bicameral budget resolution — even if Senate GOP leaders are able to make some headway this week with the four recalcitrant Republican moderates who have prevented its passage for nearly three weeks.

So that leaves the Senate with just two short weeks to finish action on all three measures before they head home June 28 for the July Fourth recess.

The Defense and class-action measures could both be passed before or after that date with few consequences, but if July comes without Senate passage of the budget resolution, it will be highly unlikely they’ll ever do it this year.

That will leave the 13 annual appropriations bills vulnerable on the Senate floor to spending increases and a needed boost in the debt limit in jeopardy in the House. Passage of the budget resolution by both chambers is needed to set spending limits for appropriations as well as make it easier for House leaders to pass a debt limit bill without holding a separate vote.

Much of the House and Senate appropriations floor activity, as well as the debt limit measure, will have to come after the July Fourth recess within the three weeks prior to this year’s unusually long August recess, which is bookended by the Democratic National Convention July 26-29 and the Republican National Convention Aug. 30-Sept. 2.

Otherwise, as Congress does so often, they’ll be racing against time in September to pass appropriations before the Oct. 1 start of the federal government’s new fiscal year.