What Else Is Happening in Congress This Week?

Posted May 16, 2005 at 6:53pm

This week is do-or-die week for judicial filibusters in the Senate. But while both sides acknowledge that the looming vote on the “nuclear” option will have historic implications, Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-Tenn.) appears to have scheduled the debate as if it were any other piece of routine Senate business. [IMGCAP(1)]

Indeed, the Senate is expected to first pass a mammoth $300 billion highway funding bill today, then have some general debate through the end of this week on the wisdom of eviscerating the minority party’s ability to filibuster judicial nominees. The chamber will hold a vote on the nuclear option next week, and then begin debate on President Bush’s

controversial nominee for ambassador to the United Nations, John Bolton. All this is set to happen before Senators jet off for a week-long Memorial Day recess.

Of course, there’s always a chance that a hodgepodge of Senators will work out a compromise on judges to draw the Senate back from the nuclear brink.

But lest anyone think the drama will end with the judges fight, just wait to see if the Democrats try to filibuster Bolton’s nomination — a scenario that begs the question of whether Frist would try to employ the same controversial parliamentary procedure to torpedo filibusters on executive nominations as well. (Senate GOP aides say they haven’t heard any rumblings about that happening — yet.)

Besides, Democrats haven’t decided yet whether to filibuster Bolton as well as the 10 judicial nominees that they held up in the last Congress. Since Bush has been in office, Democrats have possessed the ability to filibuster a handful of Cabinet and executive nominees, such as former Attorney General John Ashcroft, but declined to do so.

Bolton could be different, especially if Frist goes nuclear. Democrats have already said that if their ability to filibuster judges is shut down, they’ll likely force Frist to go through all the arcane and time-consuming Senate rules that are usually bypassed in the name of bipartisan comity. Already, Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.) put a “hold” on Bolton’s nomination, a roadblock that the Majority Leader largely abides by as a courtesy. Frist has said he’ll keep the Senate in session through the Memorial Day recess if any Senators delay a vote on Bolton.

Of course, with all the doomsday “nuclear” talk, people may not notice that some Members will actually be working on a variety of other things this week.

In fact, the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee plan to begin a three-day-long markup of a comprehensive energy bill today. The House Armed Services panel will be considering the fiscal 2006 Defense reauthorization bill, and House Republicans will be talking up a bill designed to help the political parties compete against private interest groups known as 527s. And of course, Members of both parties will continue to bemoan the recent military base-closing list.

On the House side, Republican leaders will try to break through the Senate’s blather on judicial nominations to air their own message of fiscal discipline. Yes, even as the Senate could be grinding to halt, the House will begin passing the first of this year’s annual spending bills.

Indeed, the Homeland Security and Interior spending bills are slated to get floor votes this week. For extra measure, the House will also be taking up the Homeland Security Department authorization bill.

Rep. Marsha Blackburn (R-Tenn.) will lead a GOP Conference press event today that will tout the Republicans’ adherence to a “lean budget,” said Conference spokesman Greg Crist.

And Speaker Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.) along with other GOP leaders and House Appropriations Chairman Jerry Lewis (R-Calif.) will be available to the press corps Wednesday on the topic of enforcing “spending restraint” in this year’s appropriations bills, said Hastert spokesman Ron Bonjean.

But House GOP leaders, never ones to pass up a good political fight, also stand ready to assist their Senate counterparts in assailing Democratic “obstructionism” when it comes to Bush’s judicial nominees, among other things.

“We have to make sure that Congress is getting it’s work done,” Bonjean said. “The House is well-positioned to do that.”

And just in case there’s a dearth of news conferences on the judges battle, Bonjean said that House leaders are keeping parts of their schedules open this week in order to attend any last-minute photo-ops or public relations events.

Said Bonjean: “We’re ready to go.”