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Congressional Thanksgiving: So Much to Do, So Little Time

Casting a flurry of votes on both ends of the Capitol last night and this morning, the House and Senate have now adjourned for a two-week Thanksgiving recess that leaves them with an overwhelming amount of work left to finish.

Lawmakers will return to Capitol Hill in early December for a roughly three-week mini-session attempting to accomplish as much (or more) in that legislative sprint than they had passed into law in the previous 11-month marathon.

Late Thursday night, the House failed to override President Bush's veto of the appropriations bill for the departments of Labor and Health and Human Services, garnering 277 votes, including 51 Republicans, but falling short of the two-thirds majority necessary. Bush has declared the bill to be $11 billion too high, which represents roughly half of the $22 billion that is separating the White House and congressional Democrats on the 11 spending bills left to sign into law.

The House also passed a reauthorization of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, but one that is opposed by the White House. The Senate this morning cast a string of votes on measures that were all rejected -- a Democratic supplemental funding bill for Iraq and the GOP alternative, as well as a motion to cut off debate on the farm bill.

Democrats have been battling charges -- from Republicans and their own liberal base of supporters -- that they have accomplished little in their first year in power. But the next five weeks will go a long way to determining the true level of success or failure by the new majority. And for most of the year Democrats have legitimately been able to point their fingers at Republicans accusing them of blocking tactics, but on a few key items remaining the bigger issue is internal divisions within their own caucus.

Here's a line-up card of the agenda items still on the table for Democrats (and it would require a very large table to hold this veritable Thanksgiving feast of items still under consideration).

• 11 appropriations bills. Just one of these 12 bills, the $471 billion Defense spending measure, has been signed into law. Several of the less controversial bills are ready to go but Democrats have at times attempted to attach those to other measures as a sweetener. By mid-December the temporary continuing resolution keeping the federal government functioning runs out, and Democrats will have to decide how many of these must-pass spending bills will actually pass -- and how many will be punted till next year as another continuing resolution passes. (The Democratic inability to pass the spending bills is somewhat ironic, given that the top two leaders in each chamber -- Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (Nev.), Senate Majority Whip Richard Durbin (Ill.), House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (Calif.) and House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (Md.) -- all made their legislative bones as members of the Appropriations committees.)
• FISA. While the House has passed its version, Senate Democrats are at each other's throats deciding how to proceed with their bill. The Intelligence Committee, under Chairman Jay Rockefeller (D-W. Va.), approved a version, including immunity for the telecoms. Meanwhile the Judiciary Committee, under Chairman Patrick J. Leahy (D-Vt.), balked at that provision. Now, the two sides are destined to fight it out next month in an intramural Democratic floor battle. Reid today told reporters he simply doesn't know what he's going to do. "I haven't studied it," he said, dodging the delicate question entirely.
• AMT. That's the alternative minimum tax, the policy that will whack an estimated 23 million middle class families unless it's tweaked. (It was originally imposed in 1969 in order to ensure just 155 super wealthy families paid their fair share of taxes.) But to fix the AMT Democrats essentially have to cut taxes and have decided to pay for those cuts with tax hikes predominantly on hedge fund and private equity firms, who pay only 15% capital gains taxes and not income taxes that top out at 35%. This has created deep divisions among Senate Democrats, some of whom believe these super wealthy investors are cheating the tax system and others who represent them in their states and don't want to punish their constituents. Sen. Charles Schumer (N.Y.) represents many of them and also raises tons of cash from the hedge fund crowd for the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee. Reid vowed today to pass some form of AMT fix before Christmas but again refused to say whether it would include the tax hit on the wealthy investors or some reduced form of revenue enhancers. "We're going to do one of the latter two," he said.
• Left-over conference reports. These are the grab-bag collection of key legislative items that House and Senate Democrats desperately want to pass. But they have had trouble reaching an accommodation between the competing bills from each chamber. Key among them are the ongoing negotiations with the White House and Republicans over the expansion of the state Children's Health Insurance Program, the first go-round having already drawn a Bush veto. But Reid has grown frustrated with the negotiations and at one point today told reporters "it was really a shame" that the SCHIP expansion "is not going to happen." Aides later back pedaled and said that the leader had not given up on the talks. In addition, the Senate still has not passed an authorization bill for the Pentagon and both chambers are still trying to reconcile their competing energy bills.

By Paul Kane  |  November 16, 2007; 3:06 PM ET
Categories:  Dem. Leaders , GOP Leaders , House , Senate  
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