Lame-Duck Session Could End Up Lame

Posted November 16, 2008 at 10:36am

Congressional Democrats had high hopes for their lame-duck session this week, but they now acknowledge that passage of an economic stimulus plan or automaker bailout will likely have to wait until next year.

“I don’t think much is going to happen next week,” said one Democratic Senator.

By week’s end, however, the Senator and most other Democrats predicted that those two agenda items will be on the cutting-room floor while an extension of unemployment benefits is likely to pass by Friday. Aides said they do not expect the session to continue into Thanksgiving week.

Senate Democrats plan to go through the motions of trying again to pass a House-passed $61 billion appropriations bill designed to inject money into the struggling economy. Although he could force a longer debate on the issue, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) is expected to ask for unanimous consent that the Senate pass the measure, and Reid has acknowledged that Republicans will probably object.

Reid also plans to push a more serious effort to aid automakers, but that, too, is fraught with problems — not the least of which is a lack of public support from Republicans. In addition, Senate Democrats were still attempting to figure out exactly how to craft the aid to car companies as of press time Friday.

“We’re still discussing different options,” said one Senate Democratic leadership aide. “We’re still hoping to pick up Republican support.”

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) and President George W. Bush have suggested restructuring $25 billion in loans Congress already gave the automakers so the money could be used for something other than improving the fuel efficiency of their fleets. But Democrats are split over the idea and want to provide an additional $25 billion, possibly from the $700 billion financial industry rescue passed in early October.

If there is a GOP objection to adding the automaker rescue package to the unemployment measure, Reid will likely use procedural tools to set up a vote on Wednesday, the aide said. Because the vote will likely be on a motion to limit debate, or invoke cloture, 60 votes will be needed to move forward on the bill.

Senate Democrats will be at a disadvantage during the votes. Though their majority in this Congress is a narrow 51-49, President- elect Barack Obama’s Senate resignation took effect Sunday, and it was unclear as of press time Friday whether Vice President-elect Joseph Biden would be back for votes.

Still, the Senate Democratic leadership aide said being down two votes would not be significant because any automaker bailout will have to have broad support in the GOP Conference to pass.

“This is not going to come down to a matter of one or two votes. Either there’s a strong bipartisan majority for this or there’s not,” the aide said.

House Democrats are waiting to see what — if anything — emerges from the Senate, noting that they already passed the stimulus package and a separate extension of unemployment benefits before adjourning last month. Both measures were blocked by Senate Republicans when Reid tried to pass them before Election Day.

House Financial Services Chairman Barney Frank (D-Mass.) has been tasked with working on the language for the auto loan bailout, including such provisions on how the loans would be repaid and limits on executive compensation, with a vote possible in the House regardless of whether the Senate acts.

“You would think with all the economic news out there that they would be for something,” a House Democratic leadership aide said of Senate Republicans. “It’s about saving millions of blue-collar jobs across the country.”

House Republicans appear to be all over the map. There’s disagreement over the extension of unemployment benefits. Some voted for the stimulus package, while Minority Leader John Boehner (Ohio) ripped it as wasteful Washington spending.

Likewise, the auto bailout could see some flip-flops, with Boehner already signaling his distaste after he voted for the larger $700 billion financial rescue. Other Republicans, including Policy Committee Chairman Thaddeus McCotter (Mich.), are backing the auto bailout after deriding the larger package as “socialism.”