Reid-Coburn Dispute Spawns a Lame Duck

Posted October 2, 2008 at 6:44pm

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) is setting up another tug of war with Sen. Tom Coburn (R-Okla.) over stalled public land bills that would require the Senate to come in for a lame-duck session the week of Nov. 17.

The move came as a surprise as Reid attempted recently to avoid a scenario in which he would have to bring back the Senate after the election to deal with must-pass spending and tax bills. But Reid has promised Energy and Natural Resources Chairman Jeff Bingaman (D-N.M.) that he would make a last-ditch attempt to pass a package of more than 150 largely noncontroversial land bills that Coburn has held up for months.

The lame duck might not be just about land bills, however. A Senate Democratic leadership aide said Reid also wants to make sure Senators make themselves available to come back to deal with any other pressing issues, especially economic ones, given the credit crisis.

“Sen. Reid wants to keep his options open,” the aide said.

Typically, lame-duck sessions are reserved for finishing up spending bills and expiring tax provisions that get caught up in election-year politics, but Reid has already dispensed with those matters this year. If the House today approves a Senate-passed Wall Street rescue plan, it will also approve this year’s tax-extenders legislation. Congress has already passed a continuing resolution that keeps the government funded through March 6.

If the agenda includes only the land bill, Reid’s gambit might fail, given that he needs Senators who are retiring and who might lose election to show up for the session to ensure he gets a filibuster-proof 60 votes to move forward on the measure. Additionally, the House would have to reconvene to pass the measure before the end of the 110th Congress.

“We will wait and see what, if anything, the House does. If they do not do anything, we cannot do anything,” Reid said on the floor Wednesday night.

Although the prospect of a lame duck has not been welcomed by Senators and aides alike, Bingaman spokesman Bill Wicker said, “There’s a lot of very good legislation in this land package that matters to a lot of Members, both Democrats and Republicans. The Majority Leader has made it clear that he wants to break this logjam in November.”

Wicker said Reid and Bingaman believe they could meet the 60-vote threshold comfortably, even if some Members don’t return.

“If there is no lame duck, 150-plus bills will die and we’ll have to deal with them all again in the 111th Congress,” Wicker said. “You’ve got one Senator holding up a great big chunk of the bipartisan work product of this committee for the past two years.”

Coburn has vowed to use procedural delaying powers to prevent the Senate from passing the measure in the three days Reid has outlined.

“Sen. Coburn can consume several days, and he’ll slow cook this turkey into Thanksgiving and beyond if necessary,” his spokesman John Hart said.

Hart noted that Reid might be attempting to pass the bill in a lame-duck session for two reasons. First, Coburn has pledged recently to hold up even more bills than he already has in the next Congress because the nation’s financial situation has worsened.

Plus, Hart said he believed Senate Democratic leaders are waiting to pass the bill after elections because it would possibly restrict energy exploration.

“The majority did not run out of time to consider these bills. They ran out of courage,” Hart said.

Democrats rejected that notion, saying it is Coburn’s delaying tactics and not a lack of political will that have prevented the Senate from acting.

“Another day and another lame excuse from a Senator who has done nothing but hold up good pieces of bipartisan legislation for the last two years,” the Senate Democratic leadership aide said.

In May, President Bush signed another omnibus public land package that Coburn battled.