In a dramatic endgame strategy, Senate Republicans are using the calendar and a must-pass Defense spending bill to move some of the most controversial issues of the 109th Congress.
Early Monday, the House passed a $453.5 billion Defense appropriations bill for fiscal year 2006 and a related Defense authorization bill, as well as nearly $40 billion in government spending cuts over the next five years. The package now faces intense opposition in the Senate, especially an 11th-hour decision by House and Senate negotiators to include in the Defense-spending bill a controversial plan to open the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR) for oil drilling.
Senate Democrats say including the ANWR provision in the Defense bill violates Senate rules and is an abuse of power. They threaten to use all procedural means in Senate rules to block it.
In a heated exchange on the Senate floor Sunday night, Democratic leader Harry Reid of Nevada chided Republicans for the step, saying it "will have long-term ramifications in this body."
Heated rhetoric and tough bargaining are elements of any end of session. But the fireworks this year are especially intense, because war costs and soaring deficits are narrowing the scope for dealmaking.
In the run-up to Sunday's vote, House GOP leaders had to cope with a revolt from conservatives in their own caucus who were alarmed at the growth of government programs and the federal deficit. At the same time, they had to address the demands of lawmakers from hurricane-battered Gulf states for federal relief.
The final deal over Defense spending includes a 1 percent across-the-board cut of most discretionary spending - and targets the savings to fund rebuilding the Gulf Coast and preparing for a possible flu pandemic. It's a deal that would both repair levees in New Orleans and drill for oil in the Arctic - all on the back of a bill aimed at funding the national defense.
"Oil is related to national security.... The largest consumer of oil in the US is the Department of Defense," says Sen. Ted Stevens (R) of Alaska, chairman of the defense subcommittee in the Senate Appropriations Committee, who has led the drive to open ANWR to oil drilling.
While conceding that a ruling of the chair could determine that ANWR is unrelated to the underlying Defense appropriations bill - a violation of Senate Rule 28 - Senator Stevens says, "We're living by the rules. And one of the procedures in the Senate is to appeal the ruling of the chair."
The ANWR dispute is expected to come to a vote on the Senate floor Wednesday.
"Senate rules are sometimes honored in the breach," says Senate historian Don Richey. "Conferences are by nature a very fluid operation designed to reconcile often strikingly different versions of bills that come out of the House and the Senate."
Another sign of the tougher climate for negotiating on Capitol Hill this season is the absence of member earmarks on the $601.6 billion Labor, Health and Human Services, and Education spending bill for FY 2006, another must-pass bill pending in the Senate. Last year, Congress passed some $27.3 billion on pork projects targeted without a competitive process to a specific member's district, including $1.7 billion on the Labor-HHS-Education bill, according to Citizens Against Government Waste, a watchdog group. But controversy over projects such as Alaska's "bridge to nowhere," also sponsored by Stevens, has raised the profile of pork spending. Heading into an election year, many lawmakers are more cautious.
"They just realized that they just did not have the room within the budget. They needed close to $1 billion for various programs, and they just didn't have it without taking the projects out. But whether this is a trend or a one-year aberration remains to be seen," says Tom Schatz, president of Citizens Against Government Waste.
In what could be the toughest end-of-year tussle, the USA Patriot Act is stalled in the Senate, where most Democrats and four Republicans are urging a three-month extension of the antiterrorist bill to reopen negotiations with the House over protections for civil liberties. (The bill has already cleared the House.) Without reauthorization, 14 provisions of the act expire on Dec. 31.
Defense spending bill
• Provides $453.5 billion for Defense (includes $50 billion for operations in Iraq, Afghanistan)
• Bans the cruel and inhuman treatment of prisoners in US custody
• Permits oil drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge
• Earmarks $29 billion for hurricane survivors
• Adds $2 billion to help low-income families heat their homes
• Allocates $3.8 billion to prepare for the possibility of a bird-flu pandemic
• Cuts all discretionary programs, except those for veterans, by 1 percent this fiscal year - a $8.5 billion savings
• Beefs up border security
• Toughens penalties for smuggling and reentry
• Ends "catch and release" policy for non-Mexicans entering the US illegally
• Makes it a felony (rather than a civil offense) to be in the US illegally
• Calls for a fence to be built on parts of US-Mexico border
• Requires all employers to submit employees' Social Security numbers and other information to a national database
Sources: Associated Press, Reuters