After House's '100-hour' rush, a Senate slowdown
House Democrats wrapped up their six-point "100-hour" agenda in a mere 42.25 legislative hours (by the speaker's clock), but the legislation's endgame in the Senate will probably take several months – not to mention the distinct possibility that President Bush will veto as many as four of the bills.
A 31-seat edge and rules that favor the majority party allowed House Democrats to propel their "Six for '06" agenda through the House without allowing a single Republican amendment.
"These past two weeks we have delivered on the promise. We have demonstrated that the Congress of the United States is not a place where good ideas and the optimism of the American people go to die," said Speaker Nancy Pelosi, just before the final House vote last week.
But the Senate's rules virtually guarantee that things move more slowly, even though Democrats now control that chamber, too. For one, they amplify the rights of minorities, including those of a single disgruntled senator. And if 41 of the 49 Senate Republicans stand together against a bill, they can ensure that it never comes to a vote.
As a result, senators on both sides of the aisle predict that every part of the House's 100-hour agenda will see changes before it clears Congress. Even those modifications, though, may not be able to avert a presidential veto in a majority of the bills.
First out of the gate in both the House and Senate was ethics reform. On Day 1 of the 110th Congress, the House voted to prohibit members from accepting gifts and meals from lobbyists, including travel on corporate jets. Moreover, any travel funded by nonprofit organizations or other private groups had to be approved in advance by the House ethics panel. The new rules package was adopted 430 to 1.
It's just the beginning. In the spring, the House plans take up more extensive lobby reform. Speaker Pelosi said she wants this legislation to be fully vetted in the committee process, including hearings.
The Senate, too, passed a sweeping reform bill to amend ethics and lobbying rules, with the vote coming Thursday night after two weeks of intense debate and negotiation. The Senate bill, which goes beyond the changes the House has approved so far, would do the following:
• Ban gifts from lobbyists and companies that hire them.
• Require that lawmakers traveling via someone else's private jet pay full charter rates.
• Increase to two years the "cooling off period" before a former senator can work as a lobbyist.
• Establish a point of order against bills that do not disclose earmarks – targeted projects or tax breaks – and their sponsors.
In their final hours of deliberation last week, senators adopted amendments to prohibit their spouses from lobbying and to prevent members of a lawmaker's family from benefiting from earmarks.
But the final 96-to-2 vote masks deep disagreements, which are likely to resurface when House and Senate reconcile differences over competing versions of lobby reform later this year.
"What about the innocent spouse? We're in such a free fall here we're not even worried about what we are doing to innocent spouses," says Sen. Trent Lott (R) of Mississippi, who nonetheless voted for the legislation.
Sen. Tom Coburn (R) of Oklahoma, one of two GOP senators voting against the bill, predicts that these and other "strengthening" amendments won't make it through conference. "I came here to change the culture of Washington, and this ethics reform doesn't do it," he says.
While praising the Senate for passing the most comprehensive lobby and ethics reform since the Watergate era, several public-interest groups regretted that it again voted down an amendment to create an Office of Public Integrity to shift responsibility for investigating ethics complaints from members to an independent group outside the Senate.
"With more time and education, we are hopeful that both houses of Congress will come to recognize how vital a more independent, professional enforcement entity is to regaining the trust of the American people in their elected officials in Washington," said Meredith McGehee, policy director for the Campaign Legal Center, a public-interest group in Washington, in a statement. "We hope all members of Congress who support real reform will remain vigilant against the inevitable attempts to drop key elements in a House-Senate conference."
The next item on the House agenda to come before the Senate will be an increase in the minimum wage to $7.25 an hour – the first boost of the wage floor in 10 years. House Democrats want the bill to go through as is, but Senate Finance Committee chairman Max Baucus (D) of Montana plans to add tax breaks for small businesses – a move he says is needed to get the bill to the president's desk. Senate Republicans say they will support the wage increase only if they have assurances that any harm to small businesses will be offset by tax breaks.
Other House measures face strong prospects for a presidential veto. While there is strong bipartisan support in the Senate for the House move to lift limits on federally supported embryonic stem-cell research, supporters doubt they have the two-thirds vote needed in both chambers to override a veto.
Similarly, the House move to lift a ban on the US government's negotiating lower prescription-drug prices for seniors through the Medicare system faces a likely presidential veto and strong Senate opposition. Senator Baucus, who helped draft the negotiating ban that the House bill removes, says his committee will hold hearings on the issue, but he is not committing to backing House Democrats' bill.