Hill leaders gird for final push

With the conclusion of the 105th Congress in sight, leaders of both chambers are winnowing their lists of "must-pass" legislation that must move before the projected sine die adjournment date of Oct. 9.

And with the exception of fiscal 1999 appropriations bills, those lists are pretty short because of the limited amount of time left in the session and the political reality that some issues already are buried for the year.

While issues such as banking reform are clinging to life, Senate Banking Chairman Al D'Amato, R-N.Y., has set a markup for Sept. 3, while the House has passed its bill, and others, including an expansion of visas for high tech workers, appear to be on the verge of being worked out, the GOP leadership in each chamber has but a handful of other items on the must-pass list.

In the House, legislation to renew the president's authority to negotiate international trade treaties on a fast track basis, meaning Congress can only vote them up or down without amendment, tops the must-do list.

Last year, President Clinton asked House GOP leaders to pull their fast track bill from consideration when it became clear they lacked the votes to pass the controversial trade measure.

Although Clinton has signaled recently that he is not interested in trying again to pass legislation that the liberal wing of his party was instrumental in defeating, House GOP leaders have committed to voting on fast track the week of Sept. 21.

If the House adopts fast track legislation, the Senate, where fast track is far more likely to pass, would schedule its own vote.

According to GOP leaders, the other must-pass measure in the House, and the Senate as well, is some sort of tax cut package, although the two chambers are far apart on what such a package would contain.

They do agree, however, that its centerpiece will be phasing out the so-called marriage penalty, whereby married couples tend to pay higher taxes than they would as two singles.

House and Senate GOP leaders also want to reserve part of the projected budget surplus, which the CBO estimates at $1.6 trillion over 10 years, for saving Social Security.

Notably missing from the House list is anti-teen smoking legislation.

The GOP leadership task force on tobacco announced its principles for writing a bill before the July 4th recess, but has yet to introduce legislation.

And with the issue already defeated in the Senate and of flagging interest to the general public, some members of the GOP leadership say the issue is dead in the House as well.

A spokeswoman for House Majority Leader Dick Armey, R-Texas, said how the House acts on tobacco "will be assessed in September."

In the Senate, tax cut legislation leads the short list of must-do bills.

Whether the Senate will take up healthcare reform legislation remains an open question, with negotiations between Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott, R-Miss., and Minority Leader Tom Daschle, D-S.D., over a unanimous consent agreement for debating the issue at a stalemate.

Daschle and Senate Labor and Human Resources ranking member Edward Kennedy, D-Mass., the lead cosponsor of the Democrats' bill, have vowed to resume their tactic of attaching the bill to legislation pending on the floor if an agreement is not reached.

The House has already passed the GOP healthcare measure, which Senate Democrats have rejected as a model for their chamber's bill.

Another important initiative for the Senate is a second vote to override the president's veto of legislation to ban the so- called partial birth abortion procedure.

The Senate came up short on its previous attempt to override the veto, failing to muster the necessary two-thirds majority on a 64-36 override vote.

While Lott wants to keep the debate relatively limited, Democrats are insisting on the right to offer upwards of 20 amendments to the Republican bill.

A spokesman for Lott said the Senate also plans to hold another cloture vote on the missile defense bill, which fell one vote short the last time around.

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