Pre-Holiday Menu: Legislative Buffet or Duck

By Shalaigh Murray
Tuesday, November 14, 2006

T he lame-duck session is likely to be pretty lame.

When Congress bolted a month before the election, lots of unfinished business was left behind. As in, almost all the fiscal 2007 spending bills, and measures to extend tax breaks, expand energy production and increase trade with Vietnam.

Lawmakers streamed back to the Capitol yesterday for the first week of a post-election session that could extend until nearly Christmas. The calendar this week is packed with activities, such as leadership elections in both chambers and for both parties, new member photo ops, and swan-song speeches by defeated incumbents.

A few votes are expected here and there. The House last night failed to pass an agreement granting permanent normal trade status to Vietnam. The Senate plans to take it up in the next few days, barring several outstanding glitches, including an objection from Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.). President Bush wants the Vietnam deal done by the time he arrives in Hanoi this week for an economic summit with Asian leaders.

Another priority is Senate passage of the U.S.-India Civil Nuclear Cooperation bill, permitting the U.S. to export nuclear technology to India. The measure is the centerpiece of an effort to strengthen relations between the two countries and has strong bipartisan support. Democratic Leader Harry M. Reid (Nev.) included the pact as No. 2 on his three-item lame duck wish list, delivered last week to outgoing Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-Tenn.).

Reid also pressed for action on a package of tax-break extensions, including a state sales tax deduction, research and development credit, and changes to the alternative minimum tax, all due to expire unless Congress acts soon. The package stalled before the election because the House and Senate could not agree to its contents.

If Congress is around long enough, GOP leaders hope to complete legislation to expand offshore oil and natural gas production, although key differences remain between the House and Senate versions of the bill. The gap is likely to take several weeks to bridge, House and Senate aides said.

Sometime before Friday, Congress must pass a continuing resolution to keep the government operating until the fate of nine outstanding spending bills is determined. That is not expected until after House Republicans hold their leadership elections on Friday.

House and Senate appropriators will need at least three weeks, and more likely four, to hash out final versions of the nine bills, said House Appropriations Committee spokesman John Scofield. And that is regardless of whether the bills are bundled into an omnibus package, or negotiated separately.

The other option is to pass a continuing resolution through January and make fiscal 2007 spending the Democrats' problem. Many members will be tempted to adjourn as quickly as possible in December, but punting means that scores of earmarks and bigger GOP initiatives would be sacrificed. Republicans are typically more generous toward defense and energy-related programs.

Also at loose ends is funding for the Interior Department. The chairmen of the House and Senate appropriations subcommittees that oversee the agency were defeated: Rep. Charles H. Taylor (R-N.C.) by Heath Shuler and Sen. Conrad Burns (R-Mont.) by Jon Tester.

Reid and Frist discussed the spending bills yesterday and agreed to try to push them through in December, Reid spokesman Jim Manley said. Others are skeptical that the outgoing GOP leadership will follow through on such a demanding and protracted assignment.

A Fleeting Photo Op

There were smiles all around when Reid greeted eight of the nine new members of the Senate Democratic caucus. The group will not be sworn in until January, but the incoming senators showed up yesterday to take in their new surroundings. One item on the afternoon agenda: a photo session in the Nevada Democrat's office. Reporters and camera crews crammed in, and the leader agreed to take one question.

The topic was Iraq. Reid ticked off the challenges. The U.S. military "is in a state of distress," he said, and some units are deployed without being "battle ready." Iraq has "less oil, less water, less electricity than before the war," he continued. As Reid talked, the smiles slowly faded in the semicircle of incoming senators.

Surprising Job Offers

And the congressional boss of the year award goes to . . . Rep.-elect Tim Mahoney (D), who won the Florida seat vacated by Mark Foley (R). Despite the inglorious end to his predecessor's House career, Mahoney hired several former Foley staffers to continue working in his district office. "They will ensure continuity and strong support for the district's residents," Mahoney said in a statement.

Staff writer Charles Babington contributed to this report.

© 2006 The Washington Post Company