Busy Agenda May Keep Congress In Town During Holiday Season

Back in the early 1990’s when the Democrats last controlled the House of Representatives, members would always ask then Speaker Foley’s staff for the departure date for the Speaker’s non-refundable airline reservation to the Caribbean.

That was how they were able to find out when Congress would adjourn for the year.

I suspect members of the House and Senate will soon start inquiring about Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Majority Leader Harry Reid’s travel plans for the end of the year. It looks to me that Congress will be here well into December this year and that members may even have the opportunity to sing “jingle bells” on the Capitol steps.

The general public may not care much about when Congress leaves for the year but there is a whole class of people in Washington — reporters, Congressional staff members, lobbyists — who care deeply, and they will not like the answer to this year’s question. If someone is starting an office pool, I’ll take Dec. 21.

There are several reasons why this Congressional session is likely to drag until late in the year. First, 2008 is a presidential election year. There will be no incumbent president or vice president on the ballot for the first time since 1952, so everything is up for grabs. That means that House and Senate members of both parties will want to spend as little time as possible in Washington next year and will want to be back home campaigning for themselves and for their party’s nominee.

Also, by next year basic decisions will have been made on Iraq — either Congress and the president will have decided to bring the war to a conclusion or they will have collectively punted it to the next Administration.

Thus, Congress will need to decide as many of the big issues it faces by the end of this year. That will constitute a significant amount of heavy lifting and thus the late adjournment date.

Let’s look at what is on Congress’s plate for the remainder of 2007.

First, Congress must pass the various appropriation bills to keep all the departments and agencies running. The fiscal year starts Oct. 1 and it is unlikely too many of these bills will have emerged from conference by then. This will require a large continuing resolution which is likely to be extended several weeks at a time until Congress comes to grips with major spending issues.

Congress could ultimately throw up its hands in late November or early December and pass a large continuing resolution keeping the government running until it comes back in January. However, Congress will not want to delay too many of these spending decisions too far into next year because the election calendar will really get in the way. No one likes to cast tough votes anytime close to an election.

Also, at least six United States senators (Clinton, Obama, Dodd, Biden, Brownback and McCain) are running for president and the Senate leadership may need them around if votes are close.

Of course, if the nomination battles are resolved by early February, at least four of those senators should have more time on their hands.

Iraq, of course, is the toughest issue and Congress will spend much of this month and perhaps the next several months deciding what to do.

However, other big issues also are on Congress’s plate. These include the reauthorization of No Child Left Behind, reauthorization of the country’s major farm subsidy programs (the bill has passed the House but yet been approved by the Senate), major energy legislation (different bills have passed both the House and Senate and must go to conference), and legislation to address the Alternative Minimum Tax (AMT), which is gradually hitting more and more middle class tax payers.

The new Democratic Congressional leadership will be under considerable pressure to bring as many of these matters to a conclusion as possible so that Republicans cannot attack a “do nothing” Congress in the next election.

I, for one, have always liked Washington in December. I have a feeling there are a lot of people in and out of government who may have the opportunity to experience a Washington Christmas first hand this year.

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Martin Frost served in Congress from 1979 to 2005, representing a diverse district in the Dallas-Ft. Worth area. He served two terms as chairman of the House Democratic Caucus, the third-ranking leadership position for House Democrats, and two terms as chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee. Frost serves as a regular contributor to FOX News Channel and is a partner at the law firm of Polsinelli, Shalton, Flanigan and Suelthaus. He holds a Bachelor of Journalism degree from the University of Missouri and a law degree from the Georgetown Law Center.