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Although the midterm elections will bring 61 new Senators and Representatives to Congress, this week the same old faces are back in town. Because there is unfinished business that can’t wait until January, Congress is convening in a rare post-election “Lame Duck” session. This week, Congress will focus on the remaining appropriation bills, creating a new Homeland Security Department, moving forward on judicial nominees, passing out energy legislation stalled in conference committee, and possibly enacting terrorism insurance. Here’s a look at what could happen in the remaining days of the 107th Congress.
Appropriations: It’s nearly two months since the onset of the 2003 fiscal year, and Congress has passed only 2 of its 13 appropriation bills, which fund government departments and agencies. To preclude the federal government from grinding to a halt (remember 1997), Congress passed four continuing resolutions (CR), which simply provide stop-gap funding. Predictably the two appropriations bills that have passed, Defense and Military Construction, were of the easiest and least controversial.
Given the election outcome, it seems highly unlikely that the lame duck session will act on any of the remaining 11 appropriations bills. In particular, the Commerce, Justice, State and Judiciary and Labor/Health and Human Services/Education appropriations bills will be contentious as spending and social issues pit liberal against conservatives. With battles like this approaching, Congress will most likely decide to pass its fifth CR that will carry over to the 108th when the make up of Congress favors Republicans. In the worst case scenario, Congress will decide to pass all the appropriation bills in one omnibus spending package, which will fund the remaining departments and will include a good portion of pork fat.
Homeland Security: Undoubtedly, the Homeland Security issue resonated with voters this election cycle, and some Democrats were burned by their position that the department should include special labor protections for its bureaucrats. It looks as though, with the war on terrorism in full force and a possible conflict with Iraq on the horizon, President Bush will get a new Homeland Security Department that limits the collective bargaining power of the department’s federal employees.
Judicial Nominations: Though not a hot button election issue in the eyes of the media, judicial nominations are a focal point for President Bush and CSE. Although Democrats lost the Senate, in the Lame Duck Congress Senator Patrick Leahy still resides over the Judiciary Committee. Look for the Vermont Senator to continue to stall on calling hearings and submitting candidates for votes, which will be a setback – for now –for President Bush’s nominees. It will all change however, with the 108th: President Bush will re-submit the nominations of Priscilla Owens, Michael McConnell, and Charles Pickering who were all turned down by the Democrats on the committee, and Utah Senator Orrin Hatch will take control of the gavel.
Energy Legislation: Despite a long debate on energy security over the past year, Representative Billy Tauzin (R-LA), head of the energy conference committee plans to push legislation stripped of provisions to actually help the U.S. meet its energy needs. Absent is crucial language that would allow for the environmentally sensitive exploration for oil in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, which was a key component of the original House bill and strenuously supported by CSE and President Bush. Thankfully, there is little chance that Tauzin’s version will pass out of the conference committee and go before both chambers by the end of the lame duck session. Look for Republicans in the 108th to pen new energy legislation that looks more like the original House version of the bill. With majorities in both chambers, passage of new energy legislation looks good during the new Congress.
Overall, look for this lame duck session to be rather uneventful, save the creation of a Homeland Security Department and terrorism insurance passage. The 108th Congress will certainly have its hands full getting the economy back on track through pro-growth policies like more tax cuts and making permanent the 2001 tax cuts. It also has to deal with appropriations, energy legislation, judicial appointments, the war on terrorism, and wading through a probable war with Iraq. However, the GOP should find that having the majority in both chambers tremendously helps with getting things done.