Stem Cells, Energy Bill, PATRIOT Act All on Tap

Posted July 18, 2005 at 6:50pm

This week, the House and Senate are beginning an ambitious two-week sprint to finish a wide variety of contentious legislation in advance of the August recess.

On tap in one or both chambers are conference reports on highway funding and energy policy, a Central American trade pact, revisions to the PATRIOT Act, a debate over stem-cell research, the Defense Department reauthorization bill and those all-important annual spending bills.

[IMGCAP(1)]Depending on whom you ask (and when), the Senate schedule seems to be constantly shifting, as Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist

(R-Tenn.) tries to broker a number of deals to bring up a variety of bills on stem-cell research cloning, as well as spending legislation and the DOD reauthorization bill.

And all the while, the specter of a potential Supreme Court nominee threatens to scuttle even the hardiest of deals.

What’s clear is that the Senate will likely be debating the foreign operations spending bill through Wednesday, while fielding amendments to punish China for trying to buy American oil companies and to boost funding for fighting the global AIDS epidemic.

After that, the Senate may move to the DOD reauthorization bill, which could keep the chamber busy right up until July 29, at which point a month-long recess begins. Indeed, the furor over who gets hurt in the Pentagon’s proposed base realignment and closure plan is certain to spawn myriad amendments from lawmakers trying to protect military bases back home.

That doesn’t mean that Frist won’t be able to squeeze in some other issues, such as a highway bill conference report or the stem-cell measures. Barring some serious snags, the highway conference should pass easily once it’s filed. That could come as early as this week.

Cell Bloc Divisions

So far, Frist’s attempts to get a unanimous consent agreement to bring up a package of six separate stem-cell and anti-cloning bills continues to fall short.

The House voted in May to approve a bill that would allow federal funding for research that extracts stem cells from embryos as a way of trying to find cures for diseases, such as Parkinson’s and diabetes. Currently, federal funds may be used only on stem-cell lines that were derived prior to August 2001.

Democratic and Republican aides said it appears unlikely that a deal on stem cells will be reached this week due to Frist’s insistence on offering an alternative measure that would encourage nascent research into extracting stem cells from embryos without destroying them. Current methods of embryonic stem-cell research result in the destruction of the embryo, something that anti-abortion groups consider the killing of an unborn baby. However, supporters of broader stem-cell research note that the embryos to be used would be discarded by fertility clinics regardless.

Democratic and Republican supporters of the House bill have repeatedly balked at the Frist proposal, saying it could siphon off wavering GOP Senators and prevent the House bill from being cleared for President Bush’s signature — a goal many see as moot, given that Bush has vowed to veto it. Besides, the House did not pass it with a veto-proof majority.

Still, Senate Minority Whip Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) said last week that Frist’s request for votes on six separate bills — including one that would ban all forms of human cloning, including stem-cell research — “is excessive.”

“I think they’re really going overboard to give some Republicans [political] cover,” Durbin said.

Durbin said Senate Democratic leaders want to vote on only the House bill and another House-passed bill that encourages research into extracting stem cells from umbilical cord blood and bone marrow.

A Burst of Nervous Energy
Meanwhile, House and Senate energy conferees will begin slogging through the energy bill this week, as New Hampshire Republicans and House Energy and Commerce Chairman Joe Barton (R-Texas) continue super-secret talks about how to deal with the makers of the gasoline additive methyl tertiary-butyl ether, or MTBE.

Barton inserted a provision in the House-passed energy bill that would shield MTBE manufacturers from most lawsuits. However, a similar provision in a 2003 energy bill conference report caused many Senate Democrats and Northeastern Republicans to successfully filibuster the measure.

Now, Barton is proposing a Congressionally authorized fund to pay for the cleanup of MTBE in groundwater — a problem particularly common in the Northeast that makes water supplies undrinkable. While negotiations have miraculously been kept hush-hush, Senate sources said Sen. Judd Gregg (R-N.H.) was reviewing Barton’s latest proposal and planned to present a counteroffer. Gregg spokeswoman Erin Rath did not confirm that but did say the Granite State Republican “continues to work on this issue, but at this point, I don’t have any specifics.” Similarly, a Barton spokeswoman would say only that no agreement on MTBE has been reached.

Marnie Funk, spokeswoman for Senate Energy and Natural Resources Chairman Pete Domenici (R-N.M.), said her boss hopes that as the conference committee tackles other issues, it will build “momentum to some sort of MTBE deal.”

Ron Bonjean, spokesman for Speaker Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.), said House leaders are optimistic that the entire energy bill will be ready for approval before the August recess.

“We would like our Members to go home with a highway bill and an energy bill to talk about,” Bonjean said.

But even if Gregg agrees to create some sort of MTBE cleanup fund, thereby removing a potential filibuster magnet, adding such a provision to the energy bill conference report could give Senate opponents a weighty weapon — a 60-vote budget point of order. If inclusion of the fund violates the five-year budget passed earlier this year, any Senator could bring such a point of order, and if 41 or more Senators opposed the provision, it would be stricken from the conference report.

Senate Energy and Natural Resources Republicans, however, say they will not let the lack of a deal on MTBE foil the passage of the larger energy policy bill this time around.

“We’re not going to let Members of Congress in their failure to compromise crater the whole energy package,” Sen. Larry Craig (R-Idaho), a Senate energy bill conferee, said last week in a veiled reference to Barton and House Majority Leader Tom DeLay (R-Texas).

If and when the MTBE issue is settled, however, look for clashes on the energy tax provisions to take over as the No. 1 issue of contention between conferees.

A True PATRIOT?
Elsewhere, House GOP leaders are trying to map out the best course for consideration of a PATRIOT Act rewrite, while ratcheting up the rhetorical war of words with Democrats over who is strongest on national security.

One House GOP leadership aide acknowledged that “some turbulence” is expected during floor debate this week, but that “overall, it should pass with flying colors.”

Since it was passed in the immediate aftermath of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, the PATRIOT Act has been criticized by Democrats and Republicans alike for encroaching on ordinary citizens’ civil liberties.

However, the Bush administration has pushed strongly for its provisions liberalizing the use of wiretaps and property searches, arguing that the law is a key part of fighting the war on terror.

Still, whatever amendments are allowed during floor debate could make or break the measure, as Democrats and some Republicans express skepticism about extending the reach of the anti-terrorism bill for the next 10 years. The House GOP leadership aide noted that committee amendments sunsetting the bill within a decade have helped increase support for the measure.

In the meantime, House leaders are looking to pressure Democrats into supporting the PATRIOT Act extension by challenging their national security credentials.

“I call on all Democrats still adhering to a ‘September 10th’ foreign policy to join Republicans and unite behind this crucial legislation to prevent terror, hunt down our enemies and win the war,” DeLay said in a statement Monday.

On the Central American Free Trade Agreement, House leaders expect to take it up next week. But it is still unclear whether opposition from Republicans in textile states as well as nearly all Democrats will doom what Bush has said is one of his top trade priorities for the year.

Finally, House and Senate appropriators will likely begin conference negotiations this week on a handful of the 11 annual spending bills. However, the full Senate has yet to debate seven such measures and appears unlikely to do so in the run-up to the August recess.

Appropriations bills for the Defense Department and military construction, which have been the first to move traditionally, have been held up in the Senate over base closure snags, according to sources.