As Congress Readies To Recess, GOP Agenda's Stuck In Neutral

Democratic filibusters, Republican infighting can cause the gridlock

For Immediate Release:

October 29, 2003

Contact:SEAN HIGGINS

Investor's Business Daily

It's not just Red Sox and Cubs fans who are shouting, "Wait till next year!" So are Republicans in Congress.

With adjournment set for Nov. 7, most of the GOP's legislative agenda is stalled or otherwise in limbo.

The list of unfinished items is long: a prescription drug bill, an energy bill, tort reform and school vouchers, among others. Prospects for passage grow dimmer each day.

Lawmakers are working furiously to beat the clock.

"We have a few more weeks yet," said Sen. Charles Grassley, R-Iowa, the Senate's lead energy bill negotiator. "I'm still optimistic."

On a few big items, like tax cuts and a partial birth abortion ban, Congress has passed legislation. A bipartisan do-not-call registry bill also passed easily.

But it appears increasingly likely that the Republicans will start 2004 with the rest of their agenda in pause. And that could spell trouble in the 2004 election.

"Once you're the party that clearly has the reins of power, it's hard to blame the other guy for whatever happens," said Norm Ornstein, political analyst at the American Enterprise Institute.

Causes Are Varied

Republicans are already looking past these bills. They are planning to make legislative gridlock an issue in next year's election. They'll try to paint Democrats as obstructionists in an effort to win more seats.

"The same dynamic that occurred in '02 (when the GOP posted gains in Congress) will occur in 2004," said Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C.

Causes of the gridlock are varied. In some cases, Senate Democrats have used filibusters to block progress. In others, Republicans have fought among themselves.

Most of the major bills have made it through the House, where rules let the majority party force votes.

Under Senate rules, a single lawmaker's objection can freeze a bill.

The result is that bills can't get through the Senate or get through in versions that can't be reconciled with House versions.

House Minority Whip Steny Hoyer, D-Md., says the Republicans just cannot get their act together.

"Republicans are mired in their own disagreements," he said. "There's been a consistent pattern of undemocratic management."

Republicans say the bigger problem is that Senate Democrats have been throwing sand in the gears.

The Democrats' Hand

"Republicans may not be in lock step, but at the end of the day we do produce a bill," Graham said. "We can't get anything done in the Senate because everything has been filibustered."

AEI's Ornstein says that has created a high hurdle for legislation to clear.

"The Democrats have played the only hand they have," he said.

GOP leaders aren't hiding their frustration. Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist, R-Tenn., and House Speaker Dennis Hastert, R-Ill., have intervened in a few cases, but they have often been unable to move things along.

The drug benefit bill, for example, is still being worked out in a House-Senate conference. It's taking months longer than the leaders expected.

Negotiators are at odds over the structure of the benefit and are struggling to keep the cost at $400 billion over a decade.

Support for it has dimmed in Congress. Some House Republicans are pushing for tougher cost restraints. Senate Democrats object to "arbitrary caps" on spending. They appear to have the votes for a filibuster.

Other Stalled Bills

The White House-backed energy bill was widely thought to have momentum after a major U.S.-Canada blackout in August, but it too has stalled.

Lawmakers are deadlocked over taxes for ethanol, a gas additive. Issues ranging from environmental concerns to property rights are also slowing it.

The GOP's tort reform agenda is gridlocked on two fronts. A class-action lawsuit reform bill failed to break a Democratic filibuster last week. And a proposed asbestos liability trust fund bill is stuck in the Senate, again due to Democrat opposition.

A Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac reform bill has also stalled. This time, lawmakers retreated after the Bush administration opposed a compromise bill. The administration said the bill didn't go far enough to improve oversight of the mortgage-lending institutions.

President Bush's $75 million school voucher proposal was watered down to a single $13 million pilot program for poor D.C. students. That, too, is opposed by Senate Democrats and appears unlikely to stay in the D.C. budget bill.

Another Bush idea, to let faith-based groups compete more for federal funding, has been watered down into a single bill to expand charitable deductions, which may also stall in the Senate.

Republicans still hold out hope for their agenda.

"We're going to get it all done in a week," said Sen. Trent Lott, R-Miss. "Have faith."

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