Reid Promises Hectic Session

Leader Sets Full Sept. Agenda

Posted August 8, 2008 at 4:17pm

Senate Democrats have outlined an ambitious legislative agenda to pack into three weeks in September, including long-stalled issues such as an energy bill and tax extenders.

With at least 11 items on the list, however, even Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) has indicated that accomplishing anything will take more than a little cooperation from Republicans and the White House in order to complete work by the Senate’s Sept. 26 target adjournment date.

“I think it’s great that people think we can get out the first of October. I hope we can,” Reid said before Congress recessed for August. “But our No. 1 goal is to finish our work. And we’ll need some cooperation from the Republicans, and they’ll have to be here with us.”

Still, Democratic aides insisted last week that Reid’s plan is to leave town by the end of September so incumbents can return home to campaign in advance of the Nov. 4 elections.

Both Reid and House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) have said they want to avoid a lame-duck session after the elections, but aides acknowledged that Congress’ ability to pass a long-term continuing resolution could complicate that plan.

In fact, Republicans have threatened to offer amendments to the CR that would eliminate the current moratorium on new drilling off the coasts of the United States. Both Senate Appropriations Chairman Robert Byrd (D-W.Va.) and House Appropriations Chairman David Obey (D-Wis.) have consciously avoided bringing up measures that could carry the moratorium — which has been renewed every year for decades in appropriations bills — because the two chairmen would likely lose any committee vote to keep the moratorium in place.

On July 31, Reid invoked the specter of a government shutdown if Republicans press the issue and indicated that he believes the GOP will shoulder the blame for any such outcome.

“We’ll have to find out what the ensuing weeks and months bring,” he said. “But I think that we all have learned … that shutting down the government doesn’t work very well. And that party responsible for shutting down the government, in this case it would be the Republicans, has suffered enormously in the polls.”

All or part of the government could be shut down if Congress does not pass new funding or a CR by Oct. 1.

However, both Reid and Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) could possibly avoid a fight on the CR if they allow votes on offshore drilling in other energy measures that come up in September. Reid said last week in a conference call with reporters that his staff is reviewing an energy bill that was put together by a bipartisan group of 10 Senators before Congress left town Aug. 1.

However, Senate Democratic aides said the bipartisan bill — which attempts to balance production with conservation and would open new areas off the coasts of the Atlantic Ocean and Gulf of Mexico to drilling — would have to be tweaked to satisfy the concerns of more liberal Democrats before Reid would bring it up. The bipartisan group is made up of centrists and conservatives.

One senior Senate Democratic aide said Reid’s staff has been “having conversations with different offices to get input, and we’ll see how it plays out in September.”

Plus, the aide said, Republicans will have to agree to reasonable limits on amendments before any new energy bill comes to the floor.

“The question is whether they’ll come back in September and engage in meaningful negotiations,” the aide said.

At the end of July, Republicans blocked an oil markets speculation bill from passing because they said Reid would not allow them to offer myriad amendments on various other energy issues, such as offshore drilling and nuclear energy. Though Republicans eventually whittled their list of amendments from 28 to six, Reid demanded that they also drop their filibuster of a tax-extenders bill that includes several renewable energy tax breaks.

The tax-extenders bill is also on Reid’s to-do list for September, but it has been repeatedly filibustered by Republicans because of a dispute over how the extension of current tax law would be offset. Though Senate Finance Chairman Max Baucus (D-Mont.) made several changes to the measure in July in an attempt to draw more GOP support, the bill again failed to get the 60 votes needed to overcome the filibuster.

Reid also indicated that he would like to complete action on a Defense Department authorization bill as well as the appropriations measure funding the Pentagon when Congress returns. Republicans blocked the authorization bill from coming up at the end of July as part of their campaign to keep the Senate focused on energy issues.

Reid has also held out hope that the Senate will act on the military construction and Veterans Affairs appropriations bill as well as the Homeland Security spending bill, but Democratic aides acknowledged those measures might get folded into the CR in the rush to leave town.

Lower-priority measures for Senate Democrats include taking another run at legislation to increase funding for low-income home heating assistance programs. An attempt to bring up the bill in July failed, but Democrats are hoping for better success in September given that 13 Republicans have signed on as co-sponsors of the measure.

Reid also plans to put together another package of bills that are being blocked by Sen. Tom Coburn (R-Okla.). A similar omnibus was filibustered last month. Also on the list for potential action are expansions to the Americans With Disabilities Act and a Food and Drug Administration measure.

The Democratic plan to push another stimulus measure was not included on Reid’s list, but pressure from within the Senate Democratic caucus as well as from the House could change that as the month progresses. Either way, Senate Republicans are likely to block the measure, which is intended to increase funding for all manner of Democratic priorities from highway infrastructure to food stamps.