House Preps for Flurry of Bills

Posted April 30, 2008 at 6:38pm

Democratic leaders are trying to limit the add-ons to a massive war supplemental spending bill expected to hit the House floor next week to avoid a veto showdown and set the stage for a pure stimulus package later this year.

After a month of a thin legislative agenda on the House floor, Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) promised a flurry before the Memorial Day recess, although he said a second stimulus package would wait rather than be tacked on to the war spending bill.

Behind the scenes, Democratic leaders are trying to keep a lid on the war supplemental, according to senior Democratic aides, despite pressure from various wings of the party to use the must-pass bill as leverage to carry a laundry list of spending, including unemployment benefits, food stamps, road construction, housing bailouts, renewable energy subsidies and even a summer jobs program.

A clean supplemental would help Democrats fend off charges that they are holding troops hostage to pork, as well as prevent the potential defections of conservative Blue Dog members concerned about the soaring deficit, aides said. It also might avoid a veto showdown with President Bush, who has threatened to veto any bill that exceeds the $108.5 billion he has requested.

“The thought process is we want to get this bill done and passed and signed by the president, so we have to carefully calculate what items we could add that would be acceptable,” said a senior House Democratic aide. Democrats want to “make this as difficult as possible for him to veto or for people to vote against.”

Democrats plan to tightly choreograph the divisive bill, likely bypassing a committee markup and preventing Republicans from having any meaningful input, while splitting up votes on the war, domestic spending and war restrictions.

It’s unclear how successful Democratic leaders will be in containing the supplemental with so many legislative mouths to feed and lawmakers eyeing it as a rare must-pass vehicle.

Senate Appropriations Chairman Robert Byrd (D-W.Va.), meanwhile, exerted his authority over the supplemental, saying he would schedule a full markup for next week and asserting that he would add domestic spending.

“President Bush, in his last few months in office, should assert his role as president of the United States instead of being chief cheerleader for the rebuilding of Iraq,” Byrd said. “Given rising food costs, soaring fuel prices, and critical educational and medical care needs, struggling Americans deserve more than they are getting from this president.”

The later stimulus package could end up as a political wedge issue to beat up on Republicans this fall if the GOP doesn’t come to the negotiating table. If there is a veto fight, Democratic aides say they’d rather have it on legislation that is clearly focused on the economy and isn’t tied to troop funding.

“You don’t want a mixed message — you don’t want it to be troops or our economy,” the leadership aide said. That allows Republicans to “hide behind their talking points” that Democrats are using troops rather than address the spending items directly.

Democrats made it clear, however, that they will include at least some extra spending on the supplemental. Enhanced veterans’ benefits and a few smaller domestic items such as unemployment insurance could be added as leadership juggles the votes needed to pass the bill and manages the demands of various factions.

Hoyer outlined a smorgasbord of bills that are likely to hit the floor before the recess in addition to the supplemental. Democrats expect the budget conference report and a housing package next week and aim to finish conference reports on the farm bill, consumer product safety and higher education. Other bills expected before the break include Defense authorization, warrantless wiretapping and intelligence authorization.

“I reject the Republican premise that we’re not doing a lot of work,” Hoyer told reporters.

The Majority Leader said he is optimistic that the House and Senate can work out a deal with the White House on the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act. What has changed is that the White House “has been willing to talk,” he said. “I think all the parties want to get something done.”

Hoyer said the farm bill conference report might come up next week and to expect the Defense authorization bill on the floor during the third week of May.

Hoyer’s pledge of a full calendar for the next few weeks came amid GOP criticism — and grumbling from a Democrat or two — about the light floor schedule.

“For the past few weeks, this House has done practically nothing,” said Michael Steel, spokesman for House Minority Leader John Boehner (R-Ohio). Steel cited a long list of bills that are being blocked by House leadership, including the Senate-passed FISA bill, the Colombia free-trade agreement and Rep. Heath Shuler’s (D-N.C.) border security bill.

“Why are Democratic leaders padding the schedule this week and promising to do better in the future, rather than working with Republicans to get things done for the American people right now?” Steel asked.

Hoyer countered that negotiations on conference reports for the budget and for the farm bill have taken longer than expected, which has contributed to slowed progress on the floor.

“We’re doing a lot,” he insisted.

Jennifer Bendery and Jennifer Yachnin contributed to this report.