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Lame-duck Congress may run out the clock

Congress will convene on Tuesday for what some fear will be the lamest of lame-duck sessions, and GOP leaders have decided to take a minimalist approach before turning over the reins of power to the Democrats.[!]
/ Source: a href="" linktype="External" resizable="true" status="true" scrollbars="true">The Washington Post</a

Sen. Arlen Specter (R-Pa.) wants legislation on President Bush's warrantless wiretapping program. Rep. Christopher H. Smith (R-N.J.) is sure the time has come for Congress to declare that aborted fetuses feel pain. And Rep. Thomas M. Davis III (R-Va.) still insists that the District of Columbia should be granted a vote in the House while the Republicans control Congress.

They shouldn't count on it.

Congress will convene on Tuesday for what some fear will be the lamest of lame-duck sessions, and GOP leaders have decided to take a minimalist approach before turning over the reins of power to the Democrats. Rather than a final surge of legislative activity, Congress will probably wrap up things after a single, short week of work. They have even decided to punt decisions on annual government spending measures to the Democrats next year.

"There is a lot of battle fatigue among members, probably on both sides of the aisle," said Rep. Mike Pence (R-Ind.), usually a reliable conservative firebrand. "Contrary to popular belief, members of Congress are human beings. They have a certain shelf life and a certain amount of energy to be drawn on. We're tired."

Before the midterm elections, GOP leaders had dismissed the Democrats' "do-nothing" label for the 109th Congress as political posturing, promising that a robust post-election session would put the accusation to rest. Instead, Republican lawmakers will have met for one week in November, devoted almost exclusively to leadership elections for next year, and one week in December, largely to pick committee assignments, move offices and pass a measure to keep the government operating through February.

That will mean this Congress will have spent the least time in session of any in at least half a century, according to Thomas E. Mann and Norman J. Ornstein, congressional historians and the authors of "The Broken Branch," a critical look at recent Congresses. In the time they have met, lawmakers have failed to approve a budget resolution or pass at least eight of the 11 annual spending bills.

Other significant pieces of legislation will be hard to find. Bush's push for a comprehensive overhaul of immigration laws produced a partially funded measure to build a border fence. His calls to restructure Social Security, rewrite the tax code and ease the cost of health insurance went unheeded. And GOP lawmakers' pledge to tighten ethics regulations in the wake of the indictments or resignations of four members fell flat.

"Harry Truman's 'do-nothing' Congress passed the Marshall Plan," Mann pointed out.

Not entirely without action
To be sure, Congress will do something this week. Lawmakers have routinely extended a number of business tax breaks every year or so, including a tax credit for research and development and a break for hiring welfare recipients. But that routine was broken this year when GOP leaders decided to link those business-tax-cut extensions to a deep and permanent cut to the estate tax, a link that Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-Tenn.) had declared inviolable.

This week, the inviolable link will be broken. The tax extensions will be passed on their own after all, according to legislative aides, perhaps with a multibillion-dollar provision staving off scheduled cuts to physician reimbursements under Medicare.

The House has scheduled a vote on Smith's fetal-pain bill, which, among other things, would require abortion providers to inform patients of the controversial assertion that the procedure may cause pain. Providers would also have to offer anesthesia for the fetus, which the patient would have to accept or reject in writing. But GOP leaders put the measure on the fast track to passage, which means it will need the vote of two-thirds of the House. Even if the bill wins that much support, it will go nowhere in the Senate, Republicans concede.

Likewise, House Republicans on Friday relented on their opposition to a Senate-passed measure opening new territories off the Gulf Coast to oil drilling, with much of the royalty proceeds to be dedicated to Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama and Texas. That, too, will go on the expedited calendar, where it could be sunk by environmentalist lawmakers and Republicans who believe that the bill does not go nearly far enough to open up new frontiers for oil exploration.

Beyond that, there is little in the offing. Anguished over the Democrats' victory on Nov. 7 and the tumult that has followed, GOP lawmakers want to get out of town. One senior Senate Republican aide called hopes for substantive legislation "delusional."

Much of the problem is as prosaic as office space, GOP aides said. Lawmakers were forced to vacate their offices on Friday, and few of them want to hang around Washington with no place to sit. Retiring House Ways and Means Committee Chairman Bill Thomas (R-Calif.) got angry during a meeting of committee chairmen, demanding to know how he was supposed to complete work on the business tax extension bill without an office, according to one GOP aide present in the meeting.

And attendance is expected to be light. House Resources Committee Chairman Richard W. Pombo (R-Calif.) may be crucial to passage of the offshore-oil-drilling bill, since he had led the charge to broaden the Senate's approach. But he may not have his heart in it, GOP leadership aides conceded. He was defeated on Nov. 7.

Besides, with committee assignments, chairmanships and ranking Republican posts up for grabs next week, there will be campaigns to run, presentations to make and alliances to form. Legislating may be far down the list of priorities.

Some members say they are willing to stick around, but with limits. "Most members feel we ought to stay in as long as we need to get done as much as we can do realistically," said Rep. Tom Price (R-Ga.). "If that's a week, fine. If that's four weeks, fine."

But what's realistic is very limited, and even the firebrands have turned into coldhearted realists.

"If we had a chance to make law before the Democrats took over, I'd be interested in sticking around. If we have the opportunity just to make a point, only to see the Senate stop it, I'm disinclined," Pence said. "The time for Pyrrhic victories has passed."