FISA, Budget Headline Busy Week
Deadlines are usually the best medicine for congressional lethargy, and it's standard practice for House and Senate leaders to load up the last week before a break with must-pass items. So with a recess looming and several key pieces of legislation awaiting action, this week in Congress is shaping up to be the busiest one of the year so far.
The House and Senate will leave town Friday for a two-week spring break. Before they go, both chambers will take up budget resolutions and will likely press forward on updating the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, while the House is slated to try again to pass an ethics reform measure.
The ethics bill will lead off the legislative lineup, with the House scheduled to consider this afternoon a reform measure that would create a new Office of Congressional Ethics, run by a bipartisan board of six individuals who would screen allegations and potential complaints against members. Democrats have pulled the bill from the schedule twice in the last two weeks, but appear ready to finally move forward today after additional tweaks were made to the measure last night.
Then it's on to the fiscal 2009 budget, which sets spending levels for the entire federal government for the year. The Senate will begin considering its version of the bill today, with final passage likely either Thursday or Friday, while the House will take up its spending blueprint tomorrow. Budgets nearly always pass on strict party-line votes, and typically serve as the platform for each party to cater to its base while attacking the other side. Republicans are already excoriating Democrats for assuming in their budgets that President Bush's tax cuts will expire in 2010, while Democrats are accusing Bush and the GOP of wanting to underfund key programs.
The budgets will also be the vehicle for the latest debate over earmarks. Sen. Jim DeMint (R-S.C.) will push an amendment to implement a one-year ban on earmarks, and all three of the chamber's remaining presidential contenders -- Sens. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-N.Y.), John McCain (R-Ariz.) and Barack Obama (D-Ill.) -- have signed on as cosponsors.
While the presidential candidates have missed plenty of votes in the Senate this year, their presence will be crucial this week, as Democrats' 51-seat majority gives them almost no margin for error on a strict party-line vote. After weeks of pummeling on the issue from the GOP, House Democrats are also mulling an earmark moratorium.
Looming over everything is the FISA issue. The last version of the terrorist surveillance measure expired last month, and Democrats have been in a standoff against Bush and the Hill GOP ever since. No final decisions have been made, but the House now appears likely to pass a new surveillance bill that still doesn't contain the one element Bush has demanded -- immunity for telecommunications companies that have assisted the government in surveillance operations. The latest House bill stands almost no chance of getting the 60 votes necessary to move forward in the Senate, and would face a certain veto from Bush even if it did pass both chambers.
The upshot of this week's jam-packed calendar is that the two chambers are likely to go to recess still deadlocked on the FISA issue, and lawmakers will then spend the two-week break attacking each other over their parties' respective budget plans. Sounds a lot like campaign season already, and it's only March.
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