Expect Congress to Duck and Go Home

Congress is back in town this week with an opportunity to make history, an opportunity it will probably let pass. Like most lame-duck sessions, this one will make as few waves as possible and get out of town as soon as it can.

Lame-duck sessions bring the old Congress back between the election in November and the swearing in of the new Congress in January. They are a bit like overtime in football, although rarely as suspenseful. At times they have been momentous, as when the House voted to impeach Bill Clinton in December of 1998. More often they are dutiful and brief, and bittersweet for those who have just retired or lost.

The agenda for this lame duck begins with making amends. The regular 108th Congress left Washington last month having finished only four of the 13 appropriations bills that are its essential, perennial responsibility. The 108th also left without lifting the statutory limit on the national debt, which must be done or the federal government will default on some of its obligations. Both these chores proved difficult for legislators distracted by the approach of Election Day. Now, both must be addressed.

The best way to do the appropriations bills is, of course, one by one, weighing the merits of each. But lame ducks are notoriously impatient creatures. So Congress may pass a stopgap bill (called a continuing resolution) extending current spending into January and punting all the relevant decisions into 2005.

The other option is to combine all nine remaining bills into one immense spending vehicle known as an omnibus. This juggernaut would then be rolled over its protesting opponents and down Pennsylvania Avenue to the White House. There, the president would have two choices: sign it all into law or veto it. In the latter case, much of the federal government would shut down. As a practical matter, the president is blackmailed into accepting much he does not want.

Most observers think this lame duck will attempt to pass an omnibus and settled for a continuing resolution if it can't.

But there is much else for the current lame duck to do, if it had the will. The most obvious would be to resolve the differences between the House and Senate versions of major bills, bills that otherwise will die when the lame duck adjourns.

These include the intelligence reform package built from the recommendations of the bipartisan commission on the Sept. 11 attacks. The subject of great national interest in the spring and summer, this commission's work is now in danger of being lost. The negotiators for the House and Senate have yet to reach agreement, and both sides seem unwilling to compromise further. The White House has urged them to settle, but has not taken an active role in reaching a settlement.

Another big bill "hung up in conference" between the House and Senate is the energy package. It's been passed in one form or another, several times over the past decade. But no final version has survived the negotiations between the chambers. The latest version has been hobbled by a dispute over liability for a chemical additive in gasoline.

Republicans had also talked of making progress on judgeship confirmations, liability reform and other matters this month before all sense of momentum is lost. After all, when the 109th sets up shop after New Year's, the process must start over from scratch.

But will the lame duck accomplish more than the minimum? The November mood among most of the legislators is better described as apr├Ęs la guerre — they feel they have just finished a battle, and they aren't that eager for another before Christmas.

The prime source of interest in the lame duck right now is the internal argument over Sen. Arlen Specter, the independent-minded Republican from Pennsylvania who just won a fifth term and stands ready to take over the Judiciary Committee. Specter supports abortion rights and says so. He even cautioned President Bush about nominating overt opponents of the Roe v. Wade decision to the Supreme Court. That angered many social conservatives who are now seeking ways to snatch the gavel from Specter's reaching hand.

But the more energy and attention are expended on Specter's mini-drama, the less will be left for the rest of the lame duck agenda. And that argues for the historic precedent of underachieving and going home.

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