A Few Complications Await on Omnibus, Other Bills

Posted December 17, 2007 at 6:52pm

The end is near. And for weary, holiday-minded Members of Congress and their staffers, it’s coming none too soon as they optimistically eye adjourning for the year Wednesday night or Thursday. [IMGCAP(1)]

That scenario became a real possibility when, to the relief of many on Capitol Hill, the White House took much of the drama out of this week by telegraphing that President Bush will sign the massive $517 billion omnibus spending bill — a move that will avert a government shutdown and puts an end to a tense standoff between the two branches over spending levels.

Even so, Bush’s signature hinges on both chambers’ support for unrestricted funding for the Iraq War, a bitter pill for many Democrats to swallow after a year of attempting — and failing — to force the president to bring the majority of troops home by a date certain.

Indeed, House Democrats may have to rely on GOP votes in order to secure passage of the final omnibus. Their first attempt, expected Monday night, would avoid the topic by providing only $31 billion for the war in Afghanistan. But with the Senate prepared to add at least $40 billion more for Iraq, the House will have to give the issue another look before week’s end.

Of course, that’s not all the bad news for the majority party. Democrats also have been forced to shave $22 billion from the omnibus and had to give up on their plans to offset the cost to make sure the alternative minimum tax doesn’t hit middle-class taxpayers. Still, the majority hopes to turn their legislative losses against the Republicans who insisted on these changes.

Jim Manley, spokesman for Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.), said Republicans would have to “defend the omnibus and the cuts included in that bill” along with the billions that will be added to the deficit because of their refusal to pay for the AMT patch.

“The more Republicans employ roadblocks, the more it becomes evident they’re not interested in addressing Americans’ priorities,” Manley said.

With the Senate expecting to receive the omnibus today, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) is still expected to do what Democrats acknowledge must be done but that they don’t want to do themselves: offer an amendment to strike the House Afghanistan funding and add a total of nearly $70 billion for both Iraq and Afghanistan.

And even though they have failed to get more than 52 affirmative votes in past attempts, Senate Democrats were still discussing how many amendments they would offer to place restrictions on the president’s use of the Iraq money.

Senate Armed Services Chairman Carl Levin (D-Mich.) said he would offer “Iraq-related language,” but he declined to say whether that would be in the form of a firm deadline for troop withdrawal, a goal for force drawdowns or another proposal intended to press for a change in the administration’s Iraq strategy. One Democratic source said a nonbinding Sense of the Senate resolution was a possibility.

Levin was cagey about what he would offer, saying he was floating it to GOP Senators in an attempt “to find a formula that might get us more than 50 votes.” Of course, his proposal is likely to face a 60-vote, supermajority hurdle — as would all the Iraq-related amendments, including McConnell’s — in order to avoid time-consuming procedural roadblocks that also require 60 votes to overcome.

Meanwhile, Sen. Russ Feingold (D-Wis.) was agitating to offer his bill — co-sponsored by Reid — that would allow Bush to use Iraq funding only for a limited mission that would include targeting al-Qaida terrorists, protecting U.S. interests and training Iraqi security personnel. It was unclear whether that amendment would be included in an expected bipartisan agreement on the number of proposals allowed during debate on the omnibus.

Reid indicated Monday that as many as four amendments to the omnibus would be allowed, but a Senate GOP leadership aide said Republicans were primarily concerned about funding the war and knew of no other potential GOP amendments.

Of course, conservatives such as Senate Republican Steering Committee Chairman Jim DeMint (S.C.) have stated their opposition to the omnibus because of what they say are accounting and budgeting gimmicks that added more than $11 billion to the bill.

Sens. Tom Coburn (R-Okla.) and John McCain (R-Ariz.) hope to offer two amendments. One would give the Transportation secretary authority to ignore earmark requests and use the funding instead for bridges the department deemed structurally deficient or functionally obsolete. The other would redirect earmarked funds in the Health and Human Services Department to the Maternal and Child Health block grant program.

But one Senate GOP aide said McConnell appeared unlikely to broker a deal with Reid that would give those conservatives the opportunity to offer amendments striking additional spending or targeting earmarks.

“Obviously, a number of GOP Senators would love to be able to offer amendments to the bill. I don’t know if they’ll be able to do that,” the aide said.

One aide to a conservative lawmaker said, “Conservatives in the Senate are weighing their options, but one thing they agree on is this is a bad omnibus. … It’s not an honest attempt to cut wasteful spending.”

But a Senate Democratic leadership aide indicated that Democrats may want to use three of the four amendments mentioned by Reid, leaving Republicans with only the McConnell proposal to offer.

Meanwhile, the bill to make sure the AMT does not hit millions of middle-income taxpayers next year will likely move separately from the omnibus, Democratic aides said.

Though the Senate passed a bill two weeks ago that does not include offsets, several aides said Senate leaders would hold onto the bill for another day or two before sending it to the House.

Previously, the House passed a bill with offsets that was rejected by the Senate — primarily because of GOP objections. Though the Senate has yet to send the House its bill, Ways and Means Chairman Charlie Rangel (D-N.Y.) crafted another bill that would close tax loopholes in order to pay for the AMT fix. In order to avoid a lengthy back-and-forth, Senate leaders hope sending their bill late in the week will force the House to acquiesce.

Additionally, it is unclear whether the Senate would be able to pass a rewrite of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act to clarify the ability of intelligence agencies to tap telecommunications lines without warrants.

The House is looking at taking up an energy bill with updated fuel economy standards today, as well as a terrorism risk insurance bill.

But after a year filled with partisan vitriol, most of the deals on must-pass legislation appeared to be coming together, and just days before Christmas, both Democrats and Republicans finally seem ready to bury the hatchet until the new year.

Voicing a sentiment held by most on Capitol Hill, Sen. Richard Burr (R-N.C.) said, “With everything that’s gone on this year, everybody ought to claim victory and just go home.”