Will Omnibus Roll Congress Out of Impasse?

It is the time of year when we traditionally give thanks for our blessings. So we should all be grateful Congress left Washington for its Thanksgiving recess before any actual blood was spilled. If the acrimonious, heated and often bitter debate in the House over a proposed withdrawal of U.S. forces from Iraq had continued much longer on the last night, we might have been calling in the paramedics.

As it stands, lawmakers have more than enough to do when they return to Washington next month. While the debate over Iraq policy — and allegations that the Bush administration misled the country into war — is sure to continue, lawmakers will have plenty of other important issues to attend to.

First and foremost is the debate over spending and taxes. There are two key appropriations bills remaining to be dealt with, one funding the Department of Defense, the other paying for virtually every program aimed at assisting the nation's poorest.

Then there's the unresolved question of cutting future spending on such programs as Medicare and Medicaid. Right now these programs' funding levels are set automatically (they are referred to as entitlements). If left on course to grow indefinitely, they threaten to consume the entire budget.

At the same time, the Bush administration and Republican congressional leaders have committed themselves to extending tax cuts on dividends and capital gains — including for the wealthiest investors — that would otherwise expire at the end of 2008.

The problem facing congressional leaders is to gather a majority vote in the House and in the Senate in support of these disparate goals.

The easiest task ought to be passing the defense appropriations measure, as few lawmakers will vote against funding the troops in any time of war (even if most of the money for operations in Iraq and Afghanistan comes in separate emergency spending bills). But this year even this bill is complicated by passage in the Senate of an amendment drawn up by John McCain (R-AZ), barring use of torture by interrogators. The White House, with Vice President Richard Cheney in the vanguard, has doggedly worked to kill the provision. If the McCain amendment remains, the White House says the president will veto the bill.

The bill funding the departments of Labor, Health and Human Services, and Education has a separate set of problems. House and Senate negotiators reached a compromise, only to have it rejected when it went back to the House to be ratified by the rank and file. Twenty-two Republicans voted against the bill, including a committee chairman. Such rebellion against party leadership was rare — if not out of the question — when former Majority Leader Tom Delay was twisting arms in the chamber. But now he's got his own problems, including one indictment in Texas and the prospect of another in Washington, D.C. So the Republican juggernaut now sputters a bit more than it once did.

The House and Senate have also produced vastly different approaches to cutting future spending in the final budgetary documents (known as reconciliation bills). The House approved nearly $50 billion in cuts, which included trimming the future growth of Medicaid (fewer poor families will qualify for benefits) and chopping allocations for food stamps. The Senate measure cut just $35 billion and, for the most part, left programs for low income Americans alone.

The two chambers are also far apart on taxes. The Senate approved nearly $60 billion in tax cuts, including a fix for the alternative minimum tax. Designed to ding millionaires who used shelters to duck the tax, the AMT is not indexed for inflation and has begun to bite greater numbers of middle income Americans (especially those in states with high taxes and high real estate values).

The House hasn't finished work on its version of the tax cuts, in part because its package is so different from the Senate's. In fact, the House was concerned that its measure extending investment tax cuts for the wealthiest wouldn't play well a few hours after lawmakers enacted those cuts in food stamps for the poorest.

So how do Republican leaders resolve all these differences in the week or so they plan to be in session in December? One idea being floated is to mash these measures together into one enormous bill called an omnibus. It's a Capitol Hill perennial that becomes a catchall for everything lawmakers want to do but cannot get done by the usual means. How can anyone vote against such a measure if it includes a must-pass feature, such as funding for the troops?

Think of this omnibus as one of those monster trucks that mounts and crushes a row of vehicles at a car show. No matter what gets loaded into its payload, this truck is going straight over anything in its path. And that means moderate Republicans and even some Democrats are going to go along, even it means voting to cut social programs and extend tax cuts and drill for oil in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR).

That's the solution many old hands on the Hill now foresee. And yet, this year there are so many loose ends. The anti-torture provision, war between Republican deficit hawks and moderates, the ANWR issue (now in the Senate bill but not the House). If this were the old days, House Republican leaders might be able to crack the whip (Tom Delay's old job) and make it happen. But the current GOP leadership in both chambers has not always been up to the task on big votes. And it just might be that the monster truck has run out of gas.

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