Leaders: It’s the Economy in ’08

But First, Unfinished Business

Posted January 11, 2008 at 5:40pm

Even as majority Democrats seek to lay the groundwork for a broad economic agenda in the face of an anticipated recession, two politically tricky pieces of unfinished business are expected to dominate the first few weeks of the Congressional session.

The president’s surprise veto of the Defense Department authorization bill will force Congress to take it up again, while Senators will have only 10 days to overcome a Democratic filibuster and sort out their differences with the House on a terrorist surveillance bill.

Still, the rhetorical focus of both Congress and the White House likely will be on the economy as they try to map out plans for an economic stimulus package.

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) and Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) sent a carefully worded letter to the president on Friday, asking him to hold off, as they would, on announcing any stimulus plan until he has a chance to meet with the bipartisan leaders of Congress.

Citing a bipartisan array of economists, Reid and Pelosi stated in their letter, “The most effective and responsible stimulus policies adhere to three simple principles: They must be timely, targeted and temporary. We want to work with you and the Republican leadership of the Congress to immediately develop a legislative plan based upon these principles so it can be passed and implemented into law without delay.”

However, Democratic aides said it remains to be seen whether the House majority would propose rough initiatives prior to the State of the Union address, even if a complete economic stimulus package remains unfinished. Those decisions likely would be made Tuesday when House Democratic leaders meet.

And senior Democratic lawmakers are fanning out to discuss the topic in public, with Democratic Caucus Chairman Rahm Emanuel (Ill.) speaking in Chicago today, House Majority Whip James Clyburn (S.C.) scheduled to address the U.S. Chamber of Commerce on Tuesday, and Financial Services Chairman Barney Frank (Mass.) to visit Harvard University on Thursday.

In addition, House Members on both sides of the aisle are expected to heavily emphasize the economy in their annual retreats later this month.

As they attempt to navigate the mine-filled areas of economic policy, Democrats also could find themselves backed up against another wall on the terrorist surveillance bill that would rewrite parts of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act.

With the current FISA law set to expire Feb. 1, Senate Democrats are facing a filibuster from within their own ranks, along with a fight between two chairmen over their versions of the bill and any number of amendments from both sides of the aisle. That would be a heavy lift for any 10-day span of time, but after passing whichever version they choose, the Senate still will have to conference the measure with the House.

Reid “still favors a one-month extension [of current law] if necessary to provide additional time for proper debate and a conference of the bill,” spokesman Jim Manley said.

But Senate Republicans may object to that plan, aides indicated.

“We don’t need to do an extension,” one Senate GOP leadership aide said. The aide added, “After a year of complaining about Republican obstruction, it’d be a little ironic if the most important bill we take up in January is blocked by a Democratic filibuster.”

By blocking any extensions, Republicans may try to succeed as they did this past summer in forcing Democrats to accept a Republican-backed bill rather than see the entire program lapse — a situation Republicans warn could give terrorists the ability to plan attacks on the U.S. without detection.

Meanwhile, Manley noted that there may be a “showdown” with the White House over access to documents that reveal how the administration convinced telecommunications companies to help them spy on messages coming into the United States from overseas.

“Sen. Reid feels strongly that all Senators should see the relevant documents,” Manley said.

So far the White House only has made those documents available to members of the Senate Intelligence Committee and the Senate Judiciary Committee.

In a nod to the White House, the Intelligence panel’s bill would grant telecommunications companies immunity from lawsuits related to their role in terrorist spying, but the Judiciary bill would not. The battle between those two positions is expected to be heated, even as other controversial amendments are offered.

Reid is “encouraging Senators to offer strong amendments that would seek accountability for Bush administration officials who may have circumvented the law” when they began the program, Manley said.

Democrats also are eager to get credit for passing an increase in soldiers’ pay as well as a bill to streamline the way wounded soldiers are treated by the government.

That’s why they plan to ignore the constitutional questions raised by Bush’s “pocket veto” of the Defense bill and treat the measure’s return as a regular veto, Democratic aides on both sides of the Capitol said. Pocket vetoes, which cannot be overridden, are only effective if Congress is in recess, but Bush’s claim is complicated by the fact that the Senate remained in pro forma session every three days throughout the winter holidays when he declined to sign the bill.

While an override vote is not out of the question, the House and Senate already are in talks with the administration on how to tweak the primary reason for the veto — a provision that would allow courts to freeze the assets of foreign governments accused of supporting terrorist acts against Americans. The White House wants to make sure the provision would not affect the fledgling Iraqi government.

“Nothing is off the table, but the goal is to move it quickly and get the pay raise to the troops and the Wounded Warriors Act passed,” one House Democratic leadership aide said.

One senior Senate Democratic aide echoed that assertion, saying there would be “a push to avoid” reopening the bill to amendments, including anti-war provisions.

Sen. Frank Lautenberg (D-N.J.), the author of the provision, is working “with the leaders and the White House to make sure the final bill gives these terror victims the justice they deserve,” spokesman Scott Mulhauser said. Mulhauser said Lautenberg wants the provision to stay in the bill but is not necessarily opposed to making changes since it was designed to target Iran and Libya, not Iraq.

When the House reconvenes Tuesday, it will take up a handful of bills on suspension and then move to mine safety legislation and reauthorization of the Hope VI public housing program. Next week, the chamber will attempt to override Bush’s second veto of a children’s health insurance bill.

In coming weeks, House leaders are expected to push ahead with a proposal to reform the chamber’s ethics process introduced by Rep. Mike Capuano (D-Mass.) last month.

The Massachusetts lawmaker, who chaired a bipartisan task force assigned with reviewing the ethics complaint process, has recommended the creation of a new office to evaluate and recommend investigations to the full Committee on Standards of Official Conduct.

But the measure — which would amend the House’s internal rules — could face opposition from some Democratic freshman lawmakers, who have called for more significant reforms to the ethics process, as well as from House Republicans who refused to endorse the task force’s final proposal.

Rep. Lamar Smith (R-Texas) said the Republican Members would offer their own recommendations when the House reconvenes.

The House will face an abbreviated schedule in January as party retreats and the president’s Jan. 28 State of the Union address reduce the chamber’s schedule to minimal two-day weeks at month’s end. House lawmakers then return for just two normal workweeks before beginning the weeklong Presidents Day recess Feb. 15.

Similarly, both parties in the Senate have scheduled planning retreats. Republicans will hold theirs on Jan. 23 at the Library of Congress, while Democrats will go to Mount Vernon on Feb. 1.

In addition to the FISA bill and the DOD authorization, the Senate plans to work on an Indian health care bill and a patent reform measure.