Lame-duck session likely to punt to next Congress

After a shift of power, there's little political will to finish incomplete agenda issues this session.

The "lame-duck" Congress opening this week may fit its billing.

There's a vast unfinished agenda in the 109th Congress, including most of the fiscal 2007 spending bills, immigration reform, ethics rules for lawmakers, an offshore drilling bill, a fix for President Bush's warrantless wiretapping program, and an omnibus trade and tax package.

But after an election that shifted control of the House and Senate to Democrats, there's little political will to complete it this session.

"There are a lot of factors in play, and the difficulties haven't gone anywhere since the election," says Don Stewart, a spokesman for incoming Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell. "Both sides are talking a lot, but there hasn't been agreement yet. People are just going to keep talking until someone throws up their hands."

Congress is likely to punt on approving at least nine of the 12 spending bills for the fiscal year that began on Oct. 1.

All that means heavy lifting for Democrats in the 110th Congress, who will have to deal with old spending bills even as they are rolling out a signature agenda for the first 100 legislative days.

While expectations are fading for spending bills, the Senate is on track to confirm former CIA director Robert Gates as Defense secretary. The Senate Armed Services Committee opens hearings on the nomination Tuesday, which are expected to be vigorous but not deeply divisive.

"We have to have someone who will speak truth to power and not just tell a president what he wants to hear," said Sen. Carl Levin (D) of Michigan, the committee's incoming chairman, on NBC's "Meet the Press" Sunday. "It's likely that he's confirmed, but it's very important that there be a fair process."

Of the dozen postelection sessions Congress has held since World War II, several have had historical significance. In 1954, the Senate convened to censure Sen. Joseph McCarthy (R) of Wisconsin for his "lynch party"-style hearings on the dangers of communism. In 1974, Congress met to complete legislation delayed by the Watergate investigation. In 1998, the House met for two days to impeach President Clinton.

Since then, Congress has been driven into overtime after each election because of unfinished spending bills. Those lame-duck sessions became a free-for-all for adding earmarks to massive omnibus spending bills or, when that failed, postponing decisions until the next Congress.

Of the two strategies, say budget watchdog groups, punting to the next Congress may be preferable. "It will save a lot of money," says Tom Schatz, president of Citizens Against Government Waste. "For now, taxpayers have a little bit of a Christmas present, because a continuing resolution spends the lower amount of last year's spending bill."

At press time both the House and Senate aimed to pass a continuing resolution for spending bills through Feb. 15, 2007.

The deadlock is similar to what happened in the waning hours of the 107th Congress, after Democrats lost control of the Senate. After failing to agree on spending, Congress opted to complete work on 11 unfinished appropriations bills in the new Congress. In 2002 and 2004, Congress used lame-duck sessions to negotiate vast omnibus spending bills, along with member "pork" projects to sweeten the deal.

Today, in the Senate, the main obstacle is a determined minority of conservatives who want assurances that no pork projects will be added to appropriations bills.

"We're trying to shut down the favor factory, at least until Christmas," says John Hart, a spokesman for Sen. Tom Coburn (R) of Oklahoma, who for the first time challenged individual earmarks, such as the proposed "bridge to nowhere" in Alaska, on the floor of the Senate in the 109th Congress. "We'll take a short-term [resolution] if it means not passing 10,000 earmarks in the last stages of the session."

Senate conservatives are also blocking a conference with the House over the $136 billion Military Quality of Life and Veterans Affairs spending bill, which cleared the Senate unanimously last month, in a bid to curb earmarks.

Other bills could break through the gridlock. On Friday, House Republicans agreed to allow a vote on a Senate compromise bill that would open new areas for oil and natural-gas development in the Gulf Coast, but maintain a ban on coastal drilling elsewhere. The bill also increases federal royalty shares for Gulf states from less than 2 percent to 37.5 percent. The more expansive House version of the bill would open drilling in any coastal area, unless states object.

Another compromise deal that could move this week is a package of popular tax extenders, including expiring state sales-tax deductions, college-tuition deductions, and the research-and-development tax credits that are a top priority of US business groups. This bill could be paired with expiring trade preferences for developing countries, including a measure that would allow Haiti to import textiles from countries such as China and sell them duty-free in the United States – a move strongly opposed by US textile manufacturers.

Meanwhile, lawmakers are engaged in the ups and downs of the coming power shift. Halls of congressional office buildings look like an army on the move. Defeated lawmakers, including several key committee chairmen, were due to be out of their offices by last Friday.

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