Hill Ready for Action — Supreme Court Pick or Not

Posted June 27, 2005 at 6:29pm

The looming possibility of a Supreme Court vacancy this week brings with it all the nervous energy of an epic battle between liberals and conservatives in Washington, D.C. [IMGCAP(1)]

But the uncertainty of its particulars may mean it won’t have much of an impact on the Congressional legislative agenda in the short term. Whether or not Chief Justice William Rehnquist (or another justice) decides to retire before the next court session begins in October, the roadmap for Congressional action will be more influenced by other issues this summer, Congressional sources say.

With or without a judicial seat to fill, one senior Senate GOP aide said that Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-Tenn.) had no plans for “a major ‘message’ bill in July anyway.”

While media coverage of any Supreme Court vacancy may make it seem like Congress isn’t doing anything else, GOP aides in both chambers say leaders plan to push on with regular agenda items and steer clear of any other measures whose significance would be drowned out by the noise over the high court.

For example, the annual spending bills will likely dominate the Senate schedule for the rest of the summer, starting with passage of the fiscal 2006 Interior appropriations bill as early as today. The Senate may also take up and pass the Homeland Security and legislative branch spending bills this week.

During the next four legislative weeks, Congress also may move on an expected conference report on the nearly $300 billion highway funding bill, an energy bill conference report and the hotly contested Central American Free Trade Agreement.

Still, the summer schedule, particularly in the Senate, has not yet been locked in, largely because of the threat of a Supreme Court vacancy, a senior Senate GOP aide said.

“If there is a retirement, but no nominee, the conjecture game is largely an insiders’ game,” said the aide, explaining why Congress’ work won’t necessarily be affected if President Bush doesn’t send up a nominee right away.

And even if a vacancy and a new nominee emerge before August, “We can’t move a nominee to the floor before the August recess,” noted the aide.

Given the conventional wisdom that someone will retire from the Supreme Court soon, both Senate and House GOP operatives are readying their public relations efforts, much in the way they did before the aborted showdown last month over the Senate Democrats’ filibusters of lower court nominees.

Lest the battle be accused of devolving into esoteric partisanship (as polls have shown the lower court battles were viewed by some), Senate Republicans will be reminding the public that judicial nominations are just as important as any other Congressional duty.

“Judicial nominations are part of the Senate’s business for the American people,” said one Senate GOP leadership aide. “We have the executive calendar and the legislative calendar.”

Prior to having an actual nominee to talk about, GOP Senators would likely plan on holding press conferences and devoting floor time to discuss what they expect from the nomination process and “what kind of nominee the American people deserve,” said the leadership aide.

Senate Democrats, for their part, began giving similarly themed speeches on the Senate floor last week, calling for Bush to “consult” them before naming a replacement for a retiring justice.

Meanwhile, House GOP leaders expect to offer whatever assistance they can during any Supreme Court fight, said Ron Bonjean, spokesman for Speaker Dennis Hastert (Ill.).

“We are preparing a message on it,” Bonjean said, noting that the House would still move forward with plans to take up general legislation.

Indeed, the House may move forward this summer on CAFTA, a health insurance measure for small businesses, and appropriations bills, sources said.

In addition, the House may take up a reauthorization of the controversial USA PATRIOT Act, which was passed to help law enforcement agencies catch terrorists, but has been criticized by some as infringing on citizens’ civil liberties. Perhaps because of the controversy surrounding the law, House leaders may actually want their consideration of the measure to be obscured by a Supreme Court fight.

But if no vacancy emerges by mid-July, Frist and other Senate GOP leaders may decide to roll out a modest “message” bill, such as the permanent repeal of the estate tax, the aide said.

Of course, pressure from the White House to complete CAFTA within the few months mandated by law as well as Frist’s promise to take up a controversial measure to expand research on embryonic stem cells could stymie that plan, given the short amount of time available before the beginning of the month-long August recess.

The timing of a highway conference report could also shake things up, considering that it will likely take precedence over any appropriations bills on the floor. That applies to the schedule for this week as well, given that House and Senate negotiators could come to a deal this week.

The unknowns far outnumber the knowns at this point. For example, it isn’t clear whether House and Senate GOP leaders have the votes in either chamber to pass CAFTA.

However, one House Republican leadership aide said it appeared the CAFTA tide “is turning in our direction.” The House may take up CAFTA the week of July 11, while Senate leaders are considering whether to put it to a vote this week.

Plus, Frist appears to be having a bit of buyer’s remorse over promising a vote on the stem-cell bill. It is one of the few occasions in which moderates in both parties, along with liberals, have easily prevailed on both House and Senate leaders to take up a bill that is only making the Christian conservative GOP base angry.

Of course, the potential consequence of that expected July vote in the Senate — the House passed a similar bill last month — is that Bush might finally get a chance to break out ye olde veto pen, which has heretofore gone unused during his tenure.

Ditto for the highway bill, should the Bush administration decide that lawmakers are spending too much money on roads and transit systems for their districts.