- The Washington Times - Wednesday, January 28, 2004

House and Senate Republicans leave for Philadelphia today for an annual bicameral planning retreat, preparing for a hyper-political and somewhat abbreviated legislative session. And while GOP leaders will prepare an agenda running until early October, Congress faces some of its most daunting challenges early. Grappling with difficult issues of public policy is not unique for lawmakers, but this year’s choices — to modify Thomas Hobbes’ famous phrase — will be “nasty, brutish and upon us very shortly.” Like the modern presidential nominating process, this year’s thorniest congressional decisions are front-loaded.

Returning next week, lawmakers expect activity to pickup quickly. “Not a slow rolling takeoff,” in the words of one Washington lobbyist, but “like being launched off the USS Enterprise” after a traditionally slow January. The Senate begins debate on the massive federal highway reauthorization bill, funding billions in critical transportation infrastructure programs. Lawmakers also receive the president’s budget next week and then begin crafting their own congressional fiscal blueprint. These two issues, albeit for different reasons, park on the congressional doorstep next week and promise to be among the toughest legislative battles of the year. Both involve challenging decisions about the architecture of federal spending and taxes — all housed in the edifice of election-year politics.

The highway bill includes its share of potholes and good intentions. Lawmakers want to reauthorize a multiyear program that provides funding for a variety of needed and politically popular road and infrastructure improvement programs.

As is often the case, however, desires to spend outstrip the ability to pay. While this set of trade-offs crops up every time lawmakers craft a highway bill, the stakes are higher due to growing concern about the budget deficit. Because of the magnitude of the proposals (the administration’s plan is $247 billion over six years, while the Senate and House have proffered $255 billion and $375 billion initiatives, respectively), filling the gap between existing balances in the Highway Trust Fund and the congressional desires for additional spending — particularly given the House Transportation Committee proposal — is a challenge.

Architects of the legislation face some politically slick pavement on both sides of the Capitol. House leaders confront a tougher challenge trying to fill the gap between dollars available and programmatic desires, but the Senate highway bill could also become a target for other stalled legislation — like popular provisions from the energy bill, which appears bogged down in political feuding.

While many Democrats support raising taxes to pay for a larger highway program, GOP leaders and the White House have thrown down the gauntlet privately, arguing that any kind of tax increase is off the table. How to close the gap between the motivation to spend on a politically popular program and a reticence to tax, promises to be one of the most difficult challenges of the year — and it kicks off right after the Super Bowl next week in the Senate.

Many of the same trade-offs concerning spending, taxes and the deficit commence next week when the president’s budget arrives on the Hill. The record budget deficits announced by the Congressional Budget Office earlier this week complicate passage of a new budget blueprint. One House leader already told me he thinks the passing a budget may be the “toughest vote of the year.”

Lawmakers report that the budget deficit and the need for spending restraint are growing quickly as a salient issue among voters. “People understood that we were spending a lot after September 11 and because of the war, but now they want us to do something about the trend,” one GOP House member told me.

For their part, Democrats sound a lot like they did in 1991, when they coaxed President George H.W. Bush into a deficit-reduction deal that included tax increases. “We need to look at the revenue side of the equation,” North Dakota Sen. Kent Conrad, ranking Democrat on the Budget Committee said on CNBC last week.

Mounting political pressure among some Republicans to adopt a budget plan that reduces the deficit even faster than President Bush’s plan further complicates an already daunting task. Writing such a proposal, while still funding other critical priorities and finding the votes to pass it, represents one of the steepest hills GOP leaders will climb this year.

Normally, lawmakers use January and February to ease into these difficult challenges, confronting tougher choices after a little late-winter warm up. Yet like many aspects of today’s political landscape, these contemporary controversies roared over the horizon unchecked and unharnessed. The front-loaded fracas is a parable of the contemporary Congress and its bumpy political terrain.

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