Congress Bustles With Busywork

By Jonathan Weisman and Shailagh Murray
Tuesday, September 19, 2006

With 10 days left before the scheduled Sept. 29 recess, Congress's much-trumpeted national security agenda is becalmed and awaiting a stiff wind to get it to port. This week, there doesn't even seem to be a gentle breeze on the horizon.

Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-Tenn.) had hoped to begin work on legislation authorizing military commissions to try terrorism suspects or a bill on President Bush's warrantless wiretapping program. But for the moment, the only bill on military trials that can pass the Senate is the one Bush opposes -- the bill drafted by Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman John W. Warner (R-Va.) and Sens. John McCain (R-Ariz.) and Lindsey O. Graham (R-S.C.).

The surveillance bill negotiated by Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Arlen Specter (R-Pa.) and Vice President Cheney is ready for consideration, but with at least half a dozen Republicans expressing reservations, it may not have the votes for passage.

So while Frist tries to decide between the frying pan and the fire, the Senate will keep busy with consideration of the Oman Free Trade Agreement and the nomination of Alice S. Fisher to serve as assistant attorney general. If those items are dispensed with quickly, the Senate may have to be content with reauthorizing the Commodity Futures Trading Commission and Amtrak.

The situation in the House is only a tad brighter. House leaders had scheduled consideration of Bush's military trials bill for midweek. But the notoriously cantankerous chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, F. James Sensenbrenner Jr. (R-Wis.), asked for time for his committee to consider it, and GOP leaders relented, pushing back a floor vote at least another week.

Instead, the centerpiece of the House's floor schedule will be a package of immigration and border security bills designed to demonstrate GOP toughness ahead of the election. Never mind that much of the legislation -- three bills in all -- already passed the House in December as part of a broad crackdown on illegal immigration.

The first bill would bolster the secretary of homeland security's authority to detain dangerous illegal immigrants and to clarify the authority of state and local enforcement officers to assist in the enforcement of federal immigration laws. Some police officials in border regions have expressed concern that by deputizing them in the hunt for undocumented workers, the law will jeopardize the relations they have established with immigrant communities on other law enforcement matters. But support in the House for putting the local cop on the immigration beat is overwhelming.

Another bill would streamline immigration litigation procedures. Republicans say it is needed to unclog courts bogged down with deportation appeals, but immigration and civil liberties groups say the measure would deny due process to some immigrants who are seeking political asylum.

Finally, the House will consider a bill requiring voters to prove citizenship before registering or re-registering to vote in a federal election. A coalition of groups -- including the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund, the NAACP, and AARP -- is holding a conference call today to denounce what it says is legislation to create a national, government-issued identification card.

But GOP leaders are showing no qualms about such opposition. The spate of immigration-related legislation -- including last week's authorization of a 700-mile-long, double-layered fence on the U.S.-Mexican border -- is designed to appeal to the dispirited Republican base.

What's Left

So, with less than two weeks to go before recess, prospects look bleak for the big pending bills. Aside from the national security battles that are dominating debate in both chambers, GOP leaders are punting all leftover business until after the November elections -- at the earliest.

The list includes most appropriations bills. House and Senate GOP leaders still hope to complete spending measures for the Defense and Homeland Security departments before adjourning, fearing that voters could punish them at the polls if they do not. But a veterans spending bill has stalled. And the packages that fund health, science, transportation and education programs are not even close.

A bill that would fund water projects has been left hanging, despite the election-year appeal of its many pork-rich contents. Also headed nowhere: the permanent estate tax repeal that Republicans have tried all year to push across the finish line. A port security bill faces better odds, congressional aides said, but its "must pass" status has made it a magnet for unrelated earmarks.

House and Senate GOP negotiators are way behind schedule on a defense authorization bill, but as they make a final push before next Friday, new obstacles keep surfacing.

Of all pressing federal government priorities, fixing the Federal Emergency Management Agency would presumably rank at the top of the list. Last week, the House and Senate reached agreement on how to reform the troubled agency, incorporating recommendations from post-Katrina investigations. But the proposal would increase FEMA's budget, and it is unclear whether House and Senate appropriators -- who are negotiating a final fiscal 2007 spending bill -- will include the extra money.

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