Work flow slows as House awaits health bill

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The House on Tuesday took up a resolution to honor the 2,560th birthday of Confucius — and that’s pretty much all the floor business Democratic leaders scheduled for the day, as noncontroversial bills fill up the empty hours for lawmakers awaiting health care legislation.

It seemed as if the chamber has taken to heart Confucius’ words: “It does not matter how slowly you go so long as you do not stop.”

Still, the light workload has become routine in recent weeks and is starting to fray nerves.

House Minority Leader John A. Boehner bemoaned the lack of floor activity, saying Democrats would rather “celebrate the birth of an ancient Chinese philosopher” than debate plans for jobs and health care with Republicans.

“It is unacceptable for Congress to take it easy at a time when the nation’s unemployment rate is nearing 10 percent and millions of out-of-work families struggling to make ends meet are asking, ‘Where are the jobs?’ ” the Ohio Republican said in a statement.

Democratic leaders said it was worthwhile to spend floor time on easy votes because the heavy lifting was being done on committees and behind closed doors.

“When there are not votes on the floor, there is still a whole lot of other business that has been going on,” said Rep. Chris Van Hollen, Maryland Democrat and the special assistant to House Speaker Nancy Pelosi. “It is important to have members here doing their work.”

Tuesday’s floor schedule also included a nonbinding procedural vote on an already passed annual appropriations bill for the Interior Department and resolutions that would welcome the Archbishop of Constantinople on his visit to the United States, support the goals of National Adoption Month and call on Iran to release three detained American hikers.

Rep. Al Green, Texas Democrat who sponsored the Confucius resolution, objected to Mr. Boehner singling out his bill for criticism when Republicans offer similar resolutions all the time, including the resolution to welcome the archbishop to the United States.

The Confucius resolution did not get a vote Tuesday. It was scheduled for a voice vote as part of the package of suspension bills, but Republicans requested a roll call vote, which was postponed.

The House is expected to take up more substantial legislation later in the week, including the reauthorization of the Small Business Administration. Still, resolutions for pet causes have dominated recent agendas.

Part of the problem filling the chamber’s agenda is a Senate logjam holding up major legislation and most of the 12 annual appropriations bills the fund the government for the fiscal year beginning Oct. 1.

House Majority Leader Steny H. Hoyer, Maryland Democrat, said last week that he was frustrated with the slow pace of legislation coming from the Senate.

“We’re not going to make work. I’m not going to have people stand here and just twiddle their thumbs,” he said. “We’re doing a lot of work. It just so happens it’s not on the floor.”

The Senate on Tuesday broke through one obstacle when senators overwhelmingly voted to take up a bill giving the unemployed extra weeks of benefits. But the episode underscored just how bogged down the Senate has become.

Democrats had sought for weeks to take up the bill, but Republicans objected three times, forcing Democrats to hold an official vote to head off a filibuster. And when Republicans had to vote, their opposition melted away — 27 of them joined the Democrats in voting to take up the measure, including the party leaders who had been blocking the bill.

“We’ve seen this repeatedly over the last year,” said Jim Manley, a spokesman for Mr. Reid, who said Republicans often times slow walk popular bills but end up voting for them despite making few or no changes.

Meanwhile, Democratic leaders in both chambers gave themselves more time to pass the seven of the must-pass spending bills to fund the government for 2010. The bills are already a month behind schedule, but Democrats said they’ll pass a “continuing resolution” to keep the government open until Dec. 18 - the second stop-gap measure this year.

Rep. Jerry Lewis, California Republican, complained, saying that will “literally lift that pressure off” lawmakers to get the rest of the bills done.

The new breathing room for passing appropriations bills likely means the House will see more short agendas that are long on noncontroversial measures.

• Stephen Dinan contributed to this report.

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