Spending Bills Stall as Congress Focuses on Leadership Races

By Shailagh Murray
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, November 15, 2006

The House and Senate struggled yesterday to move ahead on major unfinished bills, amid the distractions of leadership elections and a growing impatience to end a long and bitter campaign year.

The Senate last night approved by voice vote a military-construction spending bill, but not before debate stalled for hours over an unrelated provision, disaster funding for farmers. The slow pace did not bode well for completing the nine 2007 spending bills that Congress left pending when it recessed a month before the Nov. 7 elections. The $94 billion military-construction measure, which funds housing and veterans programs, was supposed to be one of the easier votes.

Meanwhile in the House, a Vietnam trade measure that appeared to be cruising toward passage was shelved until next month after it failed Monday night to win the two-thirds support needed to pass under expedited circumstances. Republicans blamed Democrats for the defeat, although 66 GOP members also voted against it.

The bill, which would grant Vietnam permanent normal trade status, won a majority of House votes, 228 to 161, but it will not be revived until after the Thanksgiving break, House GOP leadership aides said. President Bush had hoped to have the completed trade deal in hand when he arrives in Hanoi this weekend for an Asian economic meeting.

Leaders in both chambers remained hopeful that most of the remaining spending bills can be completed soon. House Republicans yesterday set a deadline of Dec. 15 for leaving town, just long enough for Appropriations Committee negotiators to finish their work, if Democrats cooperate and other obstructions are kept to a minimum. Whatever does not pass would have to be bundled into a temporary funding resolution until the 110th Congress convenes in January.

One obstacle to a speedy wrap-up is the series of leadership elections for the next Congress that are taking place this week in the House and the Senate. Yesterday, Senate Democrats chose their slate, naming Harry M. Reid (Nev.) as majority leader and Richard J. Durbin (Ill.) as majority whip. Charles E. Schumer (N.Y.), who ran the Senate campaign committee that delivered his party the majority, was elevated to a new No. 3 position, in charge of policy and strategy.

Today, it is the Senate Republicans' turn. Mitch McConnell (Ky.) is expected to be named minority leader, while Trent Lott (Miss.) and Lamar Alexander (Tenn.) are vying for the job of minority whip. Lott has extensive institutional and procedural knowledge, but he was forced to step down as Senate minority leader in December 2002 after he made remarks at a birthday party for then-Sen. Strom Thurmond praising Thurmond's 1948 presidential campaign, in which he ran as a segregationist Dixiecrat.

House Democrats will elect leaders Thursday, with the spotlight on the No. 2 job of majority leader. The current Democratic whip in the House, Steny H. Hoyer (Md.), is being challenged by veteran John P. Murtha (Pa.), a leading Democratic spokesman in favor of withdrawing troops from Iraq. Murtha is a close ally of Nancy Pelosi (Calif.), the incoming House speaker, who issued a letter Sunday night endorsing Murtha for the job.

Several senior House Democratic aides reported that key Pelosi allies, including Rep. George Miller (Calif.), were campaigning hard for Murtha yesterday, in particular among more junior members eager for Pelosi's support in securing coveted committee assignments.

And Murtha played up his role as a chief Iraq war critic, with his office releasing a statement that said, "The record is clear: Jack Murtha has been a constant voice for change in Iraq and Steny Hoyer has not."

Hoyer released his own slate of heavyweight supporters, including nine incoming committee chairmen.

"We are convinced that Steny will be a tremendous majority leader," read a letter from the group, which included Reps. John D. Dingell (Mich.), Henry A. Waxman (Calif.), Barney Frank (Mass.), Tom Lantos (Calif.), James L. Oberstar (Minn.), Ike Skelton (Mo.), Bart Gordon (Tenn.), Bennie Thompson (Miss.) and John M. Spratt Jr. (S.C.). Charles B. Rangel (N.Y.), the next Ways and Means chairman, was not a signatory, but he declared his support for Hoyer.

Murtha dismissed allegations that he has repeatedly skirted ethics boundaries, through his senior position on the House Appropriations Committee. Murtha said the charges stem from his role in the 1980 Abscam scandal, when he was named as an unindicted co-conspirator and testified against two House colleagues.

"I am disconcerted that some are making headlines by resorting to unfounded allegations that occurred 26 years ago," Murtha said in an angry statement released yesterday. "I thought we were above this type of swift-boating attack. This is not how we restore integrity and civility to the United States Congress."

On Friday, House Republicans will choose their leaders. Speaker J. Dennis Hastert (Ill.) is not running for a minority leadership post, and the front-runner for the top job is John A. Boehner (Ohio), the current majority leader.

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