- The Washington Times - Wednesday, September 22, 2004

While preparing that Thanksgiving turkey is still premature, official Washington awaits another legislative foul looming in November — a congressional lame duck session.

Over the next few weeks, the lame duck session will become the hot topic of rumors and urban legends for anyone affected by the exigencies of the legislative calendar.

Most agree that Congress will temporarily adjourn for the election sometime around October 15 (maybe even a few days earlier). That means about three weeks of vigorous legislating before a month-long electoral hiatus.

This week both chambers will likely complete action on a bill extending several popular middle-class tax cuts, which snap-back to higher rates at the end of this year, and extend other business tax incentives for another year — a nice pre-election tax-cut win for the White House and congressional Republicans. Next week the House turns its attention to the Federal Marriage Amendment. The Senate plays catch-up in the Appropriations process and both bodies consider versions of the September 11 panel’s report between now and early October. Two other measures on the docket before the election, the highway bill and international tax legislation (the so-called Foreign Sales Corporation bill), may get done or become candidates for the lame duck session.

Congress will also not complete the fiscal 2005 appropriations process before the election. Lawmakers will pass a couple of short-term continuing resolutions (CR), funding the government at current levels. The final CR will extend funding from mid-October (when Congress leaves for the election) to mid-November when lawmakers return.

But what happens during the lame duck? It will begin the week of Nov. 15, when Congress is scheduled to return to Washington to conduct its leadership elections, make committee assignments for next year and orientation for newly elected members. My guess — reinforced by discussions with knowledgeable lawmakers and historical precedent — suggests a short lame duck session focusing on just a few issues.

First, history suggests a lean lame duck. In 34 congresses since 1940, lawmakers came back for post-election sessions about half the time (this would be the 15th since 1940). It should outpace the 80th Congress’ lame duck, which lasted only two hours. Yet nearly all of these “third sessions” as they are called normally, focus on one or two major items.

Uncertainty about attendance is another factor. It’s unclear if retired or defeated lawmakers will even return, making counting votes a dicey proposition, according to several congressional leadership aides.

Despite this uncertainty, finishing the appropriations process (as opposed to passing another CR that runs into next year) is at the top of the Republican leadership’s agenda for several reasons.

One is a desire to “clear the decks” anticipating a packed legislative calendar next year. GOP leaders, counting on a Bush victory and no change in Congress, expect a robust legislative session in 2005. “The last thing we want in a new Congress, ready to work on a second-term Bush agenda, is to have to address last year’s appropriations bills,” a GOP leadership aide told me.

But there is another institutional factor motivating lawmakers and spurring action. Both the chairman of the House Appropriations Committee, Rep. Bill Young of Florida, and the chairman of the Senate Appropriations Committee, Sen. Ted Stevens of Alaska, are stepping down as heads of their respective panels. Next year, the new Congress would begin all these bills from scratch and both Appropriations committees will have new chairmen. “This is kind of a swan-song for both,” a senior appropriations committee staffer told me. The lame duck session becomes the forum for these two senior and respected lawmakers to put their marks on the process chairmen.

Passage of this “omnibus” spending bill becomes the curtain-closer for the lame duck. It not only funds the government for the fiscal year, but also serves as the vehicle for other must-pass legislation, including the politically charged debt limit increase and the extension of the airline terrorist insurance. Once it’s done the smell of jet fumes, redolently surrounding the Capitol, and a desire to reconnect with families will propel lawmakers toward adjournment, leaving any items lacking consensus on the legislative tarmac to start from scratch next year.

Those with an appetite for a robust lame duck, including a broad banquet of legislation, will not be satiated. As in the past, this year’s post-election session looks like focused and lean legislative cuisine, wrapping up in time for lawmakers to enjoy Thanksgiving with their families.

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