WASHINGTON – The three-week window between Congress' Independence Day and August recesses is typically one its most productive. That could be even more so this year as lawmakers try to clear the decks for a Supreme Court battle
Just this week, the Senate plans to debate a spending bill for the Homeland Security Department and may start considering a measure to increase federal support of embryonic stem cell research (search).
Incessant chatter may fill the 24-hour cable news networks about the president's possible choices for the Supreme Court now that Sandra Day O'Connor (search) has said she is retiring and rumors swirl about Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist's future. And senators, who will have to confirm any nominee, undoubtedly will feel the irresistible pull of television cameras and news conferences.
But the wheels that drive the passage of bills likely will grind on.
"The confirmation battle is not going to slow things down," said Eric Ueland, chief of staff to Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist, R-Tenn. "Whatever happens on the Supreme Court is not going to effect the floor."
That should hold true for July, when the Senate debates a defense policy bill and a defense spending measure.
The chairman of the Senate Appropriations Committee, Sen. Thad Cochran (search), R-Miss., is pressing for time for as many additional spending bills as possible. The Senate also may vote on a constitutional amendment on flag burning.
"There may be a bump in the road here and there, but my guess is it will be pretty much business as usual," said former Senate Republican leader Bob Dole.
During debates on Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Steven G. Breyer, the two most recent nominees to join the Supreme Court, "I don't think we missed a beat," Dole said.
The House is expected to take up a Central America trade bill. That assumes Republican leaders and the Bush administration can pick up — from GOP lawmakers who are leaning against the pact or are undecided — more than a dozen votes needed for its passage.
The House Armed Services Committee plans a hearing Wednesday on the national security impact of the government-owned China National Offshore Oil Corp.'s (search) $18.5 takeover bid for Unocal Corp. (search), the ninth-largest U.S. oil company.
Senate and House negotiators will try to wrap up a long-delayed $286 billion highway and mass transit bill so it can be delivered to President Bush before Congress' five-week August vacation.
Just before the July Fourth recess, the House had a burst of activity on Bush's domestic priority — overhauling Social Security — with a proposal to create private investment accounts using surplus payroll taxes.
Lawmakers behind this plan are optimistic they can put together legislation in the next three weeks that could win a vote in the Republican-controlled House.
Democrats remain opposed, and GOP moderates have not embraced the idea. Senate Republicans, likewise, have been unable to agree among themselves on any Social Security bill.
The Senate Judiciary Committee will handle most of the load from a Supreme Court nomination. That time-consuming task means action could be delayed on renewal of the terrorism-fighting Patriot Act (search) and a bill to create a trust fund to compensate people made ill by exposure to asbestos.
There is no shortage of other legislation available for the Senate to deal with, especially the 11 spending bills that Congress is supposed to pass every year. The House passed all of its versions before the Fourth of July break.
Frist has pledged to pass them as separate bills instead of again lumping them together in yet another foot-tall, catchall measure at year's end.
Still, what gets done will depend on Bush's Supreme Court decisions. Any contentious choice cannot help but divert attention from pending legislation.
"It has a way of eroding focus," said Joel Johnson, a former aide to both President Clinton and former Senate Democratic Leader Tom Daschle. "Much of the strategic energy on both sides of the aisle will be focused on this."