Unfinished Business
August 29, 2001

As Congress returns today from the summer recess, we thought a preview of coming attractions might be in order. Here's a preview of the fall features:

Budget Battle

White House Budget Director Mitch Daniels says, "We have vastly more than enough money to meet the nation's needs." But last weekend, Democratic Sen. John Kerry retorted that Daniels' assessment is "divorced from reality," and "so wrong…that is really underscores the nature of the confrontation that's about to take place." Confrontation, indeed. Of the 13 appropriations bills awaiting passage before the fiscal year begins Oct. 1, the House has passed nine; the Senate, five. Not one has been signed. The White House is holding out for spending increases in education and defense, along with passage of its faith- based initiative now being rewritten in the Senate. But Democrats, eager to blame the President's tax cut for the shrinking surplus, will fight hard to redirect the dwindling reserves to their own pet programs. In an attempt to head off the collision, President Bush will meet today with Dennis Hastert and Trent Lott to plot strategy. A sit-down with Daschle will come later in the week.

Tracking Fast Track

GOP leaders admit that they still lack the votes to force fast track through, but the President wants the privilege before leaving for the WTO conference in Qatar this November. Despite the shortfall, a House vote will be scheduled soon, though the Senate is not yet poised to take up a parallel bill. Buzz from the Hill rumor mill says labor is leaning on Democratic allies to hang tough, but the stalwarts from battles past, eager to curry favor with the growing Hispanic constituency, seem reluctant to lead the charge.

Selling Stem Cell

With hearings scheduled this week, expect the President's defenders not to budge off his proposal to fund research on existing stem cell lines. Detractors will claim that the lines are non-existent or inadequate. Meanwhile, pro-life groups are looking to the next battle by launching a $2 million ad campaign to pressure the President to choose a pro-lifer as his first Supreme Court nominee.

Dueling To-Do Lists

The newly installed Senate Majority Leader plans to put his gavel to good use. In addition to fast track and the approps bills, the White House also wants the Senate's blessing to open the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, but thus far, the bill remains frozen as Dems advance a compromise. Of greater priority to majority: a $1.50 increase in the minimum wage, a patients' bill of rights, and a ban on genetic-based discrimination. From the Republican side, in addition to advancing the President's agenda and making his tax cut permanent, congressional leaders want to kick-start the sluggish economy with a cut in the top capital gains tax rate.

Meeting in the Middle

House and Senate negotiators will soon conference over competing education bills and varying versions of the patients' bill of rights. Campaign finance reform could also reach conference before the session's end, though House leaders are loath to schedule a vote. The prognosis for a prescription drugs bill looks equally grim (thankfully), as neither house has reached consensus on major points.

Lawmakers were hoping to head out of town on October 5. Nothing doing. As both sides grandstand in anticipation of the critical 2002 election season, expect the usual on- camera hand-wringing and behind-the-scenes dealmaking. At best, business may conclude by Thanksgiving, though an early December recess looks far more probable. We'll keep you posted on all developments between now and then.

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