Politics with Ron Elving: Congress Back to Work

Congress is back in session after a two-week recess. NPR senior Washington, D.C., editor Ron Elving joins Madeleine Brand with a preview of key issues on the legislative agenda. The Senate will be hashing out details of a controversial immigration bill and a supplemental spending bill for Iraq, Afghanistan and for Hurricane Katrina relief. Budget issues will top the agenda in the House.

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MADELEINE BRAND, host:

Immigration, gas prices, the war in Iraq. Those are some of the topics members of Congress are tackling today. They're back in Washington after a two-week spring break.

It wasn't much of a break for those seeking reelection. Their constituents gave them an earful. NPR senior Washington editor Ron Elving is here, as he is every Monday. Hi, Ron.

RON ELVING reporting:

Hello, Madeleine.

BRAND: Well, what message from home are the members bringing back with them?

ELVING: Mostly anger and frustration. Those are the themes pretty much across the board. You mentioned the price of oil and gas. It's not just today's $3.00 gas. It's the $4.00 gas some experts think we're going to see this year.

And that's dampening the sense of confidence in an economy that's otherwise doing pretty well for most Americans, and a stock market that's doing better than at any time since before 9/11.

BRAND: Four dollars. So do we expect Congress to do something about those prices?

ELVING: Well, no. We expect them to talk about it. There'll be talk about more opportunities to drill for natural gas and for oil in the United States and in Alaska.

And yesterday, two senators said they wanted a windfall tax on the profits of big oil companies. They thought it was time to go that route because of all the consolidation in the industry and the record-high profits for some of those very large oil conglomerates.

But that will not happen in this Congress and certainly would not fly with this White House. It may be debated but I think it will be mostly so that people have an opportunity to make debating points with the public.

BRAND: Well, Ron, what else will Congress be looking at in the next few weeks?

ELVING: There are three things that they really need to do before the Memorial Day recess at the end of May. One is a special spending bill. They call it a supplemental spending bill. And it's to cover the war in Iraq and Afghanistan and Katrina costs.

The President has asked for $92 billion. The Congress is now talking something well over $100 billion. Lots of other spending is getting shuffled into this because it's a must-pass bill. And that is making the deficit hawks absolutely crazy.

BRAND: But normally this time of year Congress is working on a budget for the next fiscal year.

ELVING: Yes, for the next fiscal year. And that's the second thing they need to do right away. They need to get that budget resolution done so they can do their normal spending process, the appropriations bills they would pass between now and October.

But right now that process is stalled in the House. And again, it's because there's a split within the Republican Party. Some of the Republicans want to spend lots less money and reduce the deficit.

BRAND: I thought that was a basic Republican platform point is reducing spending?

ELVING: Philosophically yes, and on one level it is something all Republicans are supposed to agree on, particularly conservatives, some of whom have been getting most distressed in this second Bush term because spending continues to rise and they wonder what happened to their mandate in the last two elections.

But in the short term, many of the Republican members don't want to run for reelection on a lean budget. They want to be able to get their earmark spending in for their home district. They want to be able to show the people back home they can still bring the bacon.

BRAND: And when they left for their two week spring break, immigration was the hot topic. And so are they tackling that as well?

ELVING: They are going to talk about that as well. They're thinking about it. Tomorrow there's going to be a hearing in the Senate Judiciary Committee where the bill now technically resides.

And usually when they send a bill back to a committee at this stage in a Congress it means that bill is dead. But this one is maybe too big and maybe too hot still to die, at least this soon.

So there is a hearing. They're going to talk about the economic effects of immigration. And then on Thursday, that same committee, the Judiciary Committee, will meet. And they may or may not deal with the bill.

There's also the chance that the leadership of the Democrats and the Republicans in the Senate could get together and say, Look, let's make a deal. Let's not send it back to committee. Let's bring it back to the floor where it was two weeks ago. And let's try to work our way through our differences here.

But the basic problem is that you still have a lot of Republicans who want an enforce the borders bill, period. And then you have other Republicans who, with most of the Democrats, want a guest worker program and a means for undocumented workers to get legal and maybe even move towards citizenship.

So any plan with those features in it gets labeled as amnesty for lawbreakers. And that's the impasse.

BRAND: And so there's a chance there'll be no immigration bill this year?

ELVING: I would say right now that the odds on getting an immigration bill out of this particular Congress are no better than 50/50, because even if the senators can resolve that conflict I was just describing, then they would have to take their essentially hybrid bill over to the House and get some kind of a compromise with the House.

BRAND: NPR Senior Washington Editor Ron Elving. Thank you.

ELVING: Thank you, Madeleine.

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