WASHINGTON – For two of Congress' old bulls, the lame duck session that begins next week will be the last roundup.
Senate Appropriations Committee Chairman Ted Stevens (search), 80, and his 73-year-old House counterpart, Rep. Bill Young (search), must surrender their posts by party rule when the new Congress starts in January.
Both Stevens, R-Alaska, and Young, R-Fla., will remain on those committees next year and hold powerful jobs. But Republicans have limited the terms of committee chairmen to six years, and both lawmakers are hitting that wall.
That means the upcoming postelection session will be each man's last chance to play his accustomed role leading the struggle to pass a stack of spending bills, while wielding unparalleled power to win big-dollar projects for the folks back home.
Knowing that, each is pushing to work out deals with the Bush administration and among Capitol Hill factions so the bills can be finished quickly. If not, the measures will not be completed until the new Congress, when the easygoing Young and the crusty Stevens will no longer be in charge.
"We want to finish our jobs," Young said this week. "That's just something ingrained in both of us."
Stevens, the longest-serving Republican senator with 36 years in the chamber, is known for loud tirades that many suspect are done more for effect than out of anger. The more mannerly Young, a representative for 34 years, will become the House's longest-tenured GOP member in January now that Rep. Phil Crane, R-Ill, has lost-re-election.
Through their seniority and continuing roles on the Appropriations panels — where both may head the defense subcommittees next year — each man will exert considerable influence on spending. But they are unlikely to have the overall clout they enjoy as chairmen.
Congress returns next week needing to complete nine of the 13 annual spending bills for the government year that started Oct. 1. The bills cover the budgets of a dozen Cabinet departments and scores of other agencies, with an overall price tag well over $300 billion.
The bills will finance initiatives important to the White House and Congress, from subsidies for poor school districts to bolstered efforts to combat AIDS in Africa. Most measures will also have plenty of projects carved out for lawmakers' home states or districts, touted as valuable investments by lawmakers but "pork" by critics.
"We hope everything is bolted down because there definitely will be a push to take care of everybody they need to take care of, because they won't be able to do that" next year, said Steve Ellis, vice president of Taxpayers for Common Sense, a bipartisan group that favors limiting federal spending.
Conservatives have clashed particularly with Stevens, who has unabashedly made helping Alaska a focus of his Senate career and funneled billions to the state. In just seven of the spending bills for 2003, there was more than $600 million for Alaska projects, including funds for rural water systems and for the University of Alaska to buy sonar fish counters.
"Ted Stevens has always been the king of pork. I think that will probably be the case again," said conservative Rep. Jeff Flake, R-Ariz.
Stevens, in turn, has called the groups that have criticized him "psychopaths" and "idiots," and says helping his state is part of his job.
An Army Air Corps cargo pilot during World War II, Stevens has used his Senate perch to haul so much money back to his state that he is considered a cottage industry.
"Second to oil and fishing, I can't imagine a greater impact on the state" than Stevens, said Shane Langland, chairman of the board of the Anchorage, Alaska, Chamber of Commerce.
Young, who grew up in poverty in Pennsylvania, says he does not know how much he has won for Florida or his St. Petersburg district. It is at least many hundreds of millions of dollars — not counting the billions he helped win for his state to rebuild from this summer's four devastating hurricanes.
"It's going to be a little sad for us to take a back seat" after he steps down as chairman, said Dottie Reeder, mayor of Seminole, Fla., in Young's district.
In recent months Young has won $54 million to rebuild an aging bridge in his district, and over the years has steered steady streams of money to Florida colleges and highway projects.
"I don't appropriate for my state or my district for junk," said Young, who says he turns down requests for projects that don't make sense. "I don't think anybody can really complain about the value of what we do."