Congress returns for lame-duck session on spending, debt limit, intelligence
November 13, 2004
WASHINGTON – The Republicans’ election triumph behind them, members of Congress return Tuesday for a lame-duck session amid hope they can finish a huge pile of spending bills stalemated all year.
Legislators also must vote on raising the government’s tapped-out borrowing limit, now at $7.4 trillion. In addition, they would like to pass a bill to put in place the Sept. 11 commission’s vision of reshaping intelligence agencies, although House-Senate disputes make the chances appear seem dim.
Congressional aides of both parties were working toward an agreement that could let lawmakers quickly finish eight of the nine remaining spending bills for the federal budget year that started Oct. 1.
The deal would involve extra money for veterans, NASA and other White House and congressional priorities while imposing across-the-board cuts of perhaps 0.75 percent on other programs, said aides who spoke on condition of anonymity.
“One way or another, we’re going to get done,” House Appropriations Committee Chairman Bill Young, R-Fla.
Lawmakers have ample motivation for a quick postelection session, perhaps lasting little more than a week.
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Republicans are eager to clear the decks for President Bush’s second-term initiatives, which he would like to feature overhauls of the tax laws and Social Security.
Many Democrats want to settle now for spending increases they consider modest, knowing the elections mean next year’s Congress will be more conservative and probably will look less kindly on domestic programs.
“It’s important that Congress get its work done, and we’re very encouraged by what we see,” said Noam Neusner, spokesman for the White House budget office.
A postelection session has become a congressional habit, to the dismay of lawmakers who used to spend Novembers and Decembers at home. This will be the fifth consecutive election year in which members of the outgoing Congress have returned to the Capitol, including those who were defeated.
Among them will be outgoing Senate Minority Leader Tom Daschle, D-S.D., the only Senate incumbent to lose on Nov. 2.
Aides say he plans a low-key role, deferring to Sen. Harry Reid, D-Nev., who seems certain to be elected Tuesday as Senate Democratic leader for next year’s Congress.
Also in the mix are the Democrats’ defeated presidential candidate, Sen. John Kerry of Massachusetts, and his running mate, Sen. John Edwards of North Carolina, who is retiring. Both are trying to work out what their future roles will be.
Sen. Arlen Specter hopes to make a direct plea, in a private meeting with Republicans on the Senate Judiciary Committee, for his case to become chairman. Abortion opponents want Specter, R-Pa., bypassed because of his comment after the elections that anti-abortion nominees for judgeships would face a tough time winning Senate confirmation.
By midweek, Republicans hope to approve a bill to increase the government’s debt limit by perhaps $690 billion.
Without a higher borrowing ceiling, an unprecedented federal default could occur. Democrats, searching for telling issues after losing seats in the House and Senate, see the must-pass bill as a chance to highlight the record federal deficits that have arisen during Bush’s presidency.
“A matter of this importance deserves center stage,” said Rep. John Spratt of South Carolina, top Democrat on the House Budget Committee.
Of the 13 annual spending bills for the federal budget that started Oct. 1, Congress still must complete nine with a total price tag well over $300 billion. They would finance a dozen Cabinet departments, from Agriculture to Veterans Affairs, and scores of other agencies.
Least likely to be completed this year is the bill to finance energy and water programs. It is bogged down largely because of a fight over whether to build a nuclear waste depository in Nevada’s Yucca Mountain, which Reid opposes.
Bush wants the 13 bills to total no more than $821.9 billion. The House matched that amount but the Senate exceeded it by $8 billion, paying for it with accounting devices such as delaying the mailing of some welfare checks into a future budget year.
The emerging agreement would provide roughly $4 billion extra, paid for mostly with the across-the-board cut, aides said. That would let lawmakers provide extra money for community colleges, the postal service, and a Bush initiative to increase foreign aid for countries that embrace democratic reforms.
Aides hope Bush’s victory will persuade lawmakers to drop contentious provisions in the bills that block administration rules on overtime, trade with Cuba and giving federal jobs to private contractors.
The week’s work will be slowed because many lawmakers are expected to fly to Arkansas for Thursday’s opening of former President Clinton’s presidential library.