Bush spurs lame-duck session to action
Homeland-security bill's momentum shows the president's clout on Capitol Hill.
WASHINGTON — While lame duck sessions on Capitol Hill are usually nasty and unproductive, the deals under way in the last hours of the 107th Congress on issues like homeland security and terrorism insurance are breaking the mold.
It's an early signal of how politics may play out once Republicans control both ends of Pennsylvania Avenue - and how quickly the White House is calling in markers on a midterm election victory that President Bush claims as his own.
Exhibit A of a new tone on Capitol Hill is the drive toward closure on a new department of homeland security, which had stalled for months in the Democratic-controlled Senate over a dispute over the bargaining rights of public employees. Despite a last-minute dispute over what critics call special-interest provisions in the House-passed version of the bill, it is expected to clear the Senate this week.
Democrats were the first to propose the idea of reorganizing dozens of federal agencies around the issue of homeland defense, and the White House opposed it. But by campaign season, President Bush had reclaimed the issue and used it to help defeat two Democratic senators in key races - enough to hand the Senate back to the Republicans.
One result of that victory is a more concerted White House bid to drive the Senate agenda. When first asked about the prospects of moving homeland defense in a lame-duck session, Republican leader Trent Lott of Mississippi said that it could wait for the beginning of the next session of Congress. "I am not an advocate of lame-duck sessions, whether I'm in the minority or the majority. I don't think they serve the American people well," he told reporters on Nov. 6.
But the White House had a more urgent sense of priority for the new department. After a talk with the president, Senator Lott reversed course and called for work on the bill to be completed by the end of the year - before newly elected lawmakers arrive.
Another emerging trend is the new leverage of moderates in both parties. The deal that broke the homeland-security bill's deadlock over the rights of federal workers was brokered between the White House and Senators John Breaux (D) of Louisiana, Ben Nelson (D) of Nebraska, and Lincoln Chaffee (R) of Rhode Island. These three had been close to such an agreement in early October, after the homeland security bill had been stuck in procedural gridlock for five weeks. At that time, majority leader Tom Daschle (D) of South Dakota said it did not go far enough to protect the bargaining rights of federal workers, and the deal went nowhere.
"We had to face reality, and delaying the inevitable didn't seem to make sense," says Senator Chaffee, explaining why he had moved closer to the president's position.
Senator Nelson predicts that the president will be able to work out similar deals in the 108th Congress on issues such as a prescription drug benefit, permanent repeal of the estate tax, and "some sort of modest stimulus package to provide tax cuts to working families." But he adds that the White House must not overplay its hand.
"The White House is like the dog that catches the car," Nelson says, referring to the new, but narrow, GOP control over Congress. "There are not enough votes [to avert a filibuster], but it will be difficult to win the blame game again. The White House knows it's going to have to attract swing voters and centrists to pass legislation, and will hopefully avoid issues that take it too far to the right," Nelson says.
Even so, the possibilities of obstruction for a party that does not control the 60 votes needed for a cloture vote to end debate are legion. In weeks of debate over homeland security, Sen. Robert Byrd (D) of West Virginia - a master of Senate rules - used every procedural device in the book to delay this bill, and insiders say he could still delay a final vote past today. "For heavens sake, we have a right to know what is in this 484-page bill, and as of this moment, we do not," he said on Friday.
Other senators on both sides of the aisle are concerned about some provisions slipped into the House version of the homeland security bill, which passed by a vote of 229-121 last week. These include sweeping liability protections for pharmaceutical companies that make vaccines and an earmark that gives Texas A&M a near-lock on being chosen as the site for a new research center on homeland security.
"These shouldn't have been put in there, and it makes it much more difficult to pass," says Senator Breaux. Moderates such as Sen. Susan Collins (R) of Maine also express doubts about "unrelated provisions slipped into this bill that really don't belong."
Once Republicans control the Senate in the next Congress, they will also have the advantage of wrapping top legislative priorities into a budget resolution.
"If the president's requests are boundless and he insists on playing from his base and moving reluctantly leftward, then he's bound to run into difficulties, but my guess is it will hold together. It's pretty telling that the president got everything he wanted on homeland security," says Tom Mann, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution.