Senate Starts Where It Ended

Posted July 7, 2008 at 4:04pm

It’s been over a week since lawmakers left the Senate floor without completing big-ticket items like a Medicare fix and a renewal of the federal wiretapping program. And now Senators are back where they started.

However, any votes or fiery floor debate will not come until at least Wednesday afternoon because many lawmakers are expected to attend the funeral services in Raleigh, N.C., for former Sen. Jesse Helms (R-N.C.), who died on July 4 at the age of 86.

Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) said Monday that he will delay votes until Wednesday afternoon so that many Republicans — including Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (Ky.), who will eulogize his former colleague — can attend the funeral services and also hold their weekly GOP luncheon when they return mid-week.

The road ahead for the renewal of the government’s surveillance program is less likely to be wrapped up in another political storm, as the Democrats who oppose the measure are set to vote against the bill. But they also plan to move out of the way so that the chamber can proceed to other pressing issues.

Sen. Russ Feingold (D-Wis.), who was viewed as the staunchest opponent of the program along with Sen. Chris Dodd (D-Conn.), still plans to offer his amendment to strip language essentially giving telecommunications companies immunity for cooperating with the government. That way, lawmakers will get the opportunity to cast an up-or-down ballot on the issue.

The debate over renewing and changing the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act has caused problems on the campaign trail for the presumptive Democratic presidential nominee Sen. Barack Obama (D-Ill.), who has been criticized by both his supporters and Republicans for his support of the legislation.

Medicare is likely up after FISA; but, the way forward for both Democrats and Republicans is unclear as neither side is giving in to pressure to either go back to the drawing board or move the package along.

Both sides appear to be locked in a political fight over who is to blame for the logjam that resulted in the expiration of Medicare payments to doctors.

Many GOP Senators complain that Reid tried to shove the House-passed measure down their throats before the recess and was unwilling to seek a more bipartisan bill.

Sen. Arlen Specter (R-Pa.), who voted against cutting off debate, said that Reid was not allowing Members to offer amendments, which lost his vote.

Specter was rumored to have been the single Republican vote that could’ve changed the outcome of the bill.

Still, an aide to the 78-year-old Pennsylvania Republican said Specter is unlikely to bend to pressure from Democrats or the American Medical Association, which aired television ads over the break targeting certain GOP Senators, including Specter.

The aide called Specter’s opposition to the Medicare bill a “procedural issue” that could be easily solved if amendments were allowed.

But even as Members move toward these big pieces of legislation, they hope to address energy issues after hearing complaints from their constituents on the high gasoline prices over the break.

Reid held out hope that at some point before the Senate breaks in August both parties could come together to bring about some relief at the gas pump.

“Democrats and Republicans want to do something on gas prices, and hopefully this work period, we can do it,” Reid said.

Meanwhile, a housing market overhaul may prove the biggest headache for Democrats. Reid and his home-state colleague, Sen. John Ensign (R-Nev.), chairman of the National Republican Senatorial Committee, had been caught in a political tussle over an amendment that Ensign offered with Sen. Maria Cantwell (D-Wash.) to extend renewable-energy tax credits.

In explaining why he wants to attach it to the housing bill, Ensign argued that there are few vehicles that will actually reach the president’s desk and have a chance at becoming law. Reid, however, countered that it is unlikely that House Democrats would accept the tax credits under pay-as-you-go budget rules, setting up a battle between the two chambers.

Ensign has maintained that he will hold up the housing legislation until Reid relents and allows him to offer his amendment.

That, however, may be the least of Reid’s problems since fiscal conservative Sen. Jim DeMint (R-S.C.) has raised concerns in the wake of allegations that both Dodd, the Democratic sponsor of the housing bill, and Sen. Kent Conrad (D-N.D.) may have received favorable mortgages from Countrywide Financial.

It’s unclear whether Reid will surmount these obstacles.