The end of a session of Congress is never a tidy affair. First, there's the annual pileup of backroom deals to get the next year's spending bills out the door. In an election year, there's also the pressure to be out campaigning or fundraising to be anywhere but Capitol Hill.
But this year, there's even another glitch: the prospect that control of the Senate could switch parties a record third time during a two-year session. It's made endgame calculations for both parties this year even more bizarre.
Here's the scenario that has the senior staff in both parties consulting their rules of the Senate: If Sen. Jean Carnahan (D) of Missouri loses her race, GOP challenger James Talent would replace her before the 108th Congress is seated in January. That's because Mrs. Carnahan was appointed to her Senate seat after her husband was elected posthumously.
That means that if the Senate comes back in a lame-duck session after the Nov. 5 elections, Democrats could no longer have the edge. With a new GOP senator from Missouri, the Senate effectively returns to a 50-50 split, with Vice President Dick Cheney acting as tie-breaker.
So far, it's all bluff and bluster. Democrats say that Carnahan won't lose her race and that all the work will get done, so there won't be a need for a lame-duck session. But Sen. Larry Craig (R) of Idaho, the Republican Conference chairman, has already signaled that if Talent wins and the Senate returns after the elections, he will demand that Mr. Talent be seated immediately.
While few talk openly about it, senior staff on both sides of the aisle have been looking into the prospect for months, especially since the Missouri race recently edged into a dead heat.
Off the record, Republicans float the prospect of using a lame-duck session to get traction on judicial nominations, bogged down in the Senate Judiciary Committee, or pushing a homeland security bill, which has been effectively filibustered for weeks by Sen. Robert Byrd (D) of West Virginia.
Republicans also cite some 100 bills passed by the House and likely to die in the Democratic-controlled Senate.
Democrats say it won't happen. "All it would mean is that [Senator] Lott would get to speak first. He'd never be able to reorganize the Senate for such a short time," says Ranit Smelzer, a spokeswoman for Senate majority leader Tom Daschle.
How Senate Republican leader Trent Lott manages such a tough partisan battle could also influence whether he is challenged for leadership in the next session of Congress. Sens. Don Nickles (R) of Oklahoma and Bill Frist (R) of Tennessee are investing heavily in other Senate campaigns this year usually a good sign of a of a potential leadership challenge down the line.
"It defies the political imagination," says Marshall Wittmann, a congressional analyst for the Hudson Institute. "But, in fact, those types of dramatic dares almost never materialize. Even if Republicans tried to pull it off, it would be hard to carry through on them, because the rules allow the minority party so much power to obstruct."
In fact, lame-duck sessions of Congress are notoriously unproductive. "Whatever party perceives they will be in a better position in January has an incentive not to do anything," says Don Ritchie, associate Senate historian.
But this year, avoiding one won't be easy. Congress is well behind on fiscal 2003 appropriations bills. Only 5 of 13 spending bills have been passed by the House, and only three by the Senate. At this pace, it is likely that none will have reached the president's desk by Oct. 1, when fiscal year 2003 begins.
In all, it's been a deeply troubled year for budget politics. For the first time since new budget rules were passed in the 1970s, the Senate was not able to pass a budget resolution. That means there is no agreement on spending limits between the Senate and the GOP-controlled House, a fact that will make coming to agreement in conference even more difficult.
This week, House and Senate leaders will have to pass a continuing resolution to keep the government funded after Oct. 1.
"The Senate is a pretty near unmanageable place," said Bush budget director Mitchell Daniels, at a Monitor breakfast yesterday. The White House and Senate have not yet discussed prospects for a lame-duck session, he adds.
With the prospect of war with Iraq dominating the political scene, some lawmakers are calling for pushing off spending decisions into the 108th Congress and skipping the frustrations of a lame-duck session.
"We'd rather just take back the Senate next year," says Sen. Rick Santorum (R) of Pennsylvania.