For Senate, It’s Nov. 21 or Bust

Senate leaders told rank-and-file Members on Tuesday that the Veterans Day holiday has been canceled and a five-day workweek would be instituted for the remainder of the session, as Nov. 21 has now been officially identified as the new target day for adjournment.

With several major issues still unresolved, including a handful of appropriations bills, Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-Tenn.) determined that the chamber will need every day available to wrap up its list of must-pass legislation if Senators hope to adjourn before Thanksgiving. He also refused to rule out keeping the chamber in session on weekends to keep the Senate on schedule.

Senators offered little resistance when they got the news Tuesday from Frist and Minority Leader Tom Daschle (D-S.D.) at their respective weekly strategy meetings.

Republicans and Democrats alike said it is worth staying in session every day next week if it means wrapping up business by Nov. 21.

“Sure it will cause some inconvenience for me and for other Members but I would rather work a full week and work a little bit later at night if that means completing the important work of the session before Thanksgiving,” said Sen. John Sununu (R-N.H.).

Sen. Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) agreed the Senate needs to work through the Tuesday holiday, and predicted leaders would reserve time during that day to honor the nation’s veterans.

“We got a lot of important things hanging out there and I am afraid we are going to have to stick with it,” Durbin said.

The House will not be in session on Veterans Day next week, but Members are expected to return to Capitol Hill on Wednesday. The House has already passed all 13 appropriations bills, but the Senate, as of late yesterday afternoon, still needed to approve four spending measures.

Approving the 13 appropriations bills, a Medicare prescription drug benefit, and energy legislation have all been identified by GOP leaders as must-do legislative measures for the remainder of this year.

“I think everything beyond that is dispensable,” said a GOP aide, who noted that the leadership is currently weighing what other secondary measures it will try to pass before Nov. 21.

Frist first warned Senators he was considering canceling the holiday during a speech on the floor Tuesday morning in which he noted that there was “less than three weeks now to complete our work.”

The Majority Leader assured Democrats that by working every day next week, Congress would be able to adjourn prior to Thanksgiving.

“Senator Frist has promised that in exchange for working on Veterans’ Day we will be out of session on the 21st for good,” said Ranit Schmelzer, Daschle’s spokeswoman.

Still, at the Republican meeting, Sen. Trent Lott (Miss.) told his colleagues they needed to be exercise caution about what issues they intended to handle on Veterans Day.

“Veterans Day is a day of honor for our veterans and I think we should be careful that we treat it in a proper fashion,” Lott said in an interview following the meeting. “I didn’t go in a lot of detail, I just said you ought to think it through carefully.”

One issue being discussed by Republican leaders is to bring the Veterans Affairs-Housing and Urban Development-independent agencies Appropriations bill to the floor for a vote. The bill funds, among other things, the Veterans Affairs Department.

Sen. John Warner (R-Va.), a Navy and Marine Corps veteran, said he doesn’t believe his fellow veterans will think the Senate is disrespecting them by working on the holiday.

“We are here working on behalf of the men and women of the armed forces on a wide range of issues,” Warner said.

The threat of a five-day workweek is not unusual and has been used in the past by other Majority Leaders to spur Senators to finish their work expeditiously.

Lott, who uttered a similar warning when he served as Majority Leader, said it is effective tactic if used correctly.

“It works only if you carry it out a few times where they believe you when you tell them,” Lott said.

If anything, Durbin said, “It at least tells people to get serious and stop dawdling and focus on getting things completed.”

The Nov. 21 deadline will require both the House and Senate to approve a new continuing resolution to keep the government operating. The House is expected to approve the two-week CR today and the Senate will follow suit before the current measure expires on Friday.

Meanwhile, in the race to complete its work, frustrations among House Democrats appeared to be hitting a new high. Minority Whip Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) penned a personal letter to Majority Leader Tom DeLay (Texas) on Tuesday to voice his party’s concerns about being shut out of GOP-led conference negotiations.

Hoyer said he was “deeply troubled” that Democratic conferees appointed by Speaker Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.) are being excluded from talks on key legislation including Medicare and energy. He asked that Democratic conferees be included in the conferences to which they were appointed.

“This policy of exclusion offends our democratic tradition, demeans this institution and silences the elected representatives of 130 million Americans,” Hoyer wrote. “Moreover, it makes bipartisanship on issues of great magnitude almost impossible to achieve.”

House Democrats have been complaining for months about the Republican House leadership, arguing the GOP has unfairly denied them an opportunity to participate. Tuesday’s letter was the latest in a string of protests.

DeLay’s spokesman Jonathan Grella said Hoyer’s letter is likely to do little more than win him “sympathy and attention from his Caucus.”

“Democrats who are seriously interested in a place at the table have one,” Grella said, adding that centrist Democrats like Sens. Max Baucus (D-Mont.) and John Breaux (D-La.) are included in Medicare talks.

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