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Senate will be tough on 2008 hopefuls

For senators with presidential aspirations, 2007 looms like a potential minefield.
Sen. Hillary Clinton, D-N.Y., has begun active consideration of a 2008 run for president while at the same time facing up to additional duties demanded by the Democratic takeover of Congress and its heavy schedule.Haraz N. Ghanbari / AP
/ Source: The Associated Press

For senators with presidential aspirations, 2007 looms like a potential minefield.

The schedule alone is a career enhancement hazard.

When Congress returns under Democratic control in the first week in January, the House and Senate will be tied up with spending bills and other legislation left over from this year as well as an ambitious agenda set by new Democratic congressional leaders.

The schedule for this week's lame-duck session calls for a limited amount of work.

Campaign limitations
Lawmaking will be a balancing act between voters' expectations and legislative pragmatism, between the impulse to spend and fiscal discipline, between campaigning and staying in Washington to govern.

The likely candidates next year face votes on appropriations, budgets and trade - all of which present potential pitfalls in a presidential campaign.

Congress also could consider immigration and Social Security legislation, two issues that attract widespread public interest as well as alarm.

Hanging over all that will be Iraq.

So far six Democratic and three Republican senators are weighing whether to run for president in 2008. Two House Republicans also are in the mix. The race is off to an early start, with potential candidates setting up their campaign and fundraising operations and seeking early media exposure.

Democratic handicap?
For the Democrats in particular, that amounts to serious multitasking.

At least three - Sens. Joe Biden of Delaware, Christopher Dodd of Connecticut and John Kerry of Massachusetts - will be committee chairmen in the Senate. Two other senators - Hillary Rodham Clinton of New York and Evan Bayh of Indiana - are in line to head two subcommittees, where much legislation originates.

Senate Democratic leader Harry Reid of Nevada has pledged to increase the work tempo in the Senate, promising votes throughout the week instead of the current Tuesday to Thursday schedule.

"It's going to be interesting to see if those folks who are in the Senate and who now have the responsibility to chair committees, to sort of run the show, whether their attention will be captured by the Senate or whether they will make time to come campaign," said Dick Harpootlian, a former chairman of the Democratic Party in South Carolina. His state is a requisite stop early in the presidential sweepstakes.

Budget, taxes and trade concerns
As senators, Republican and Democratic presidential contenders will face difficult choices on the Senate floor. Democrats have pledged to budget frugally, spending or cutting taxes only if the money can be made up elsewhere.

That is a tall order given their desire to increase spending on education and fix the alternative minimum tax, intended to ensure the wealthy do not avoid taxes through loopholes.

But this tax is not indexed to inflation and has encroached on middle-income taxpayers. Correcting the tax or eliminating it would cost hundreds of billions in lost revenue over the next decade.

Congress also will have to address nettlesome trade issues.

President Bush's right to negotiate trade deals without the ability of Congress to amend them expires in June. Labor unions oppose simple reauthorization and votes that expand trade do not play well in states such as South Carolina, which has lost much of its textile industry to foreign countries.

Outgoing Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, a likely contender for the Republican presidential nomination, alluded to the challenge facing senators while he attended the annual meeting last week of the Republican Governors' Association, which he has headed.

"There's nothing that's going to yield a bigger swat - or a thumping if you will - than saying one thing and doing another," Romney said.

Lame duck session
Part of the problem for Democrats is that congressional Republicans return to Washington this week with the reins of power still in their hands, but with little ambition to do much more than ride out of town by week's end.

During the weeklong session, the last under GOP control, Congress is expected to vote on a new defense secretary, approve a package of expiring but popular tax and health provisions, put the government on a budget autopilot and leave major spending decisions to next year.

Unable to complete action on nine major spending bills to operate the government, the House and Senate plan to approve a resolution that will keep the government running at current spending levels until Feb. 15. House and Senate negotiators were trying to finish work on a nuclear power technology-sharing agreement between the United States and India.

Congressional leaders were looking for ways to get a vote on legislation giving Vietnam preferred trading status. Labor unions oppose the bill, though several Democrats, including Dodd and Kerry, support it. But without any urgency to pass it, the measure could also end up in a 2007 to-do list.

Absent any legislative clashes, the Iraq war will offer lawmakers plenty of opportunities to spell out their differences with Bush administration policy - and with each other.

The Iraq factor
Bush's nominee to lead the Pentagon, Robert Gates, will have his confirmation hearing Tuesday before the Senate Armed Services Committee. Clinton, Bayh and Sen. John McCain of Arizona, now considered the front-runner for the Republican presidential nomination, are committee members.

Gates is not expected to face serious opposition, but he will be pressed to assess the administration's policies in Iraq.

"They need to elicit from Gates a clear and unequivocal recognition of the full range of the mistakes that have been made," said Susan Rice, a foreign policy expert at the Brookings Institution who advised Kerry in his 2004 presidential campaign. "If he can't acknowledge that, it really does call into question his willingness and ability to change course."

On Wednesday, a bipartisan commission studying Iraq is scheduled to release its recommendations. They are expected to call for increased diplomacy with Syria and Iran and a gradual withdrawal of combat troops from Iraq.

Many Democrats, including Kerry, want a specific timetable for withdrawal. McCain, on the other hand, wants to boost troop strength in Iraq. Either way, the commission report will provide fodder for presidential candidates to stake out positions that will follow them well into the campaign.