- The Washington Times - Monday, June 24, 2002

This was the year an election-minded Congress was supposed to be more interested in scoring political points than passing legislation. Surprisingly, there seems to be a bit more movement on Capitol Hill than most had expected.
Political gridlock typically rules Congress in a midterm congressional election year. Things started that way in January. President Bush's agenda was moving along at a relatively fast clip last year until the Democrats took control of the Senate and his agenda gradually slowed to a crawl and seemed to stop altogether earlier this year.
Mr. Bush is now slowly recovering some of his former momentum with a lot of political deal-making, back-room maneuvering and some presidential elbow grease defying his skeptics and the historical political precedents.
Let's start with fast-track trade negotiating authority. No one would have given you odds it was going anywhere this year in the Senate. But now Mr. Bush's remaining top legislative economic goal has cleared that chamber, cluttered with some Democratic entitlements and restrictions the White House does not want, but alive nevertheless with a good chance of moving toward final passage.
A House-Senate conference committee must work out its differences, but the betting on Capitol Hill is that Mr. Bush will get a trade bill he can sign before year's end.
President Clinton tried and failed three times to get trade negotiating authority. Restoring this longstanding presidential power will ensure that the United States is a major player when the World Trade Organization meets for its next round of trade talks, and will be critical to Mr. Bush's plans to negotiate free trade deals throughout South America.
Terrorism insurance had been bogged down in the Democratic Senate for months, but last week the bill passed on a vote of 84-14 after some heavy lobbying by insurers and business leaders.
A lot of work still remains to be done when the bill goes to conference in the House. Democrats irresponsibly refused to place any limits on lawsuits, giving the trial lawyers free rein to seek huge, economically harmful claims from businesses. Mr. Bush has threatened to veto the bill if the Senate version reaches his desk.
Still, a core terrorism insurance bill has finally begun moving again through the legislative process and a compromise deal is in the works, administration officials say.
Then there is the president's energy bill. Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle, South Dakota Democrat, seized control of the measure and brought his own version to the floor, minus the critically important provision to allow oil drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR).
With Senate Democratic leaders unalterably opposed to the ANWR provision in the House bill, the chances of its revival in a House-Senate conference would seem unlikely at best. But there's a good chance that ANWR could be put back in the bill that emerges from the conferees.
The reason: The political lineup among the Senate conferees will be nine Democrats and eight Republicans, reflecting the Democrats' slim, one-vote majority in that chamber. But Democratic Sen. John Breaux of Louisiana, one of the conferees, strongly supports drilling in ANWR and he could provide the vote that would put this key provision back in the final bill.
Conference reports cannot be filibustered (which require 60 votes to break), so there are enough votes in the Senate to pass an ANWR by a simple majority vote. "We've got a good shot at it if Breaux goes our way," a Senate Republican leadership official told me.
Elsewhere on the president's agenda, though, things look bleak.
There is little if any movement in the Senate on the administration's spending bills. Mr. Daschle does not have the votes to pass a budget, and thus far he has not passed a single appropriations bill.
GOP officials believe Mr. Daschle wants to put off action on most appropriations bills, preferring to pass a huge omnibus-spending bill just before Congress goes home for the elections.
This would give West Virginia Sen. Robert Byrd, the powerful Appropriations Committee chairman, further opportunity to stuff the fat spending bill with billions of dollars more in unrequested, unbudgeted spending provisions that have made this Democrat the "King of Pork" on Capitol Hill.
But Daschle and Co. will be playing with political fire if they think they can put off any action on critical appropriations needed to protect the country's national security.
Incredibly, there are no scheduled plans in the Senate's Democratic leadership to take up the defense-spending bill anytime this summer, possibly delaying action until sometime in September.
It would be shameful indeed if no defense appropriations bill has cleared the Senate by the first anniversary of the September 11 terrorist attacks that took the lives of nearly 3,000 people.

Donald Lambro is senior political correspondent for The Washington Times and is a nationally syndicated columnist.


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