Lame duck session likely to last until at least mid-December

The Senate is slated to return next week for a jam-packed legislative week, then adjourn until early December to finish the remaining work of the 109th Congress, a senior aide to Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist, R-Tenn., said Thursday afternoon.

Frist and Minority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., are working with the Appropriations Committee to finish up as many spending measures as possible next week. Frist plans to bring up the Military Construction spending measure at the beginning of the week.

The leaders also are working on an agreement to pass a continuing resolution to keep the government running until Dec. 8. The current one expires Nov. 17.

The Frist aide said GOP leaders also would like to reach an agreement on a Vietnam-trade agreement. "I think we all share the goal of at least attempting to finish that legislation," the aide said. "We have a little work left to do with Democrats on that."

In a letter today to Frist, Reid said Democrats would cooperate with Republicans on three legislative fronts: appropriations, security and tax cuts. Reid said Democrats would support appropriations measures with "fair" spending levels as well as bioterrorism legislation and a package of popular tax cuts that does not include "extraneous" language.

Reid called on Frist to bring an offshore drilling measure to the floor, but the House has yet to agree to that legislation. The Senate passed it earlier this year.

At the White House, President Bush on Thursday sketched out a robust agenda for the lame duck, speaking in the Rose Garden following a Cabinet meeting and making his case privately at a breakfast meeting with House and Senate Republican leaders. Bush said he wants Congress to finish the fiscal 2007 appropriations bills rather than pass a long-term continuing resolution.

Bush also said he wants Congress to pass warrantless surveillance legislation, permanent normal trade relations for Vietnam, legislation promoting cooperation with India on civilian nuclear technology and energy legislation. Frist spoke with Speaker Dennis Hastert, R-Ill., this week about working out a House-Senate compromise on the Indian legislation that could possibly move next week.

"We're hopeful the House and Senate could act on that as quickly as common text can be produced," said the aide. After next week, senators are expected to resume the session Dec. 4 for two weeks. Frist's aide said Senate and House GOP leaders hope to finish their workload within those two weeks.

When senators return in December, they are expected to finish the remaining spending bills and possibly take up a package of popular tax extenders. Frist's office indicated hearings would be held on President Bush's nomination of former CIA Director Robert Gates to replace Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld.

Frist's aide said Democrats are signaling they would cooperate on confirming Gates in December. Senate Armed Services Chairman John Warner, R-Va., told reporters he hopes the Senate will confirm Gates by the end of the year. Neither Armed Services ranking member Carl Levin, D-Mich., nor Foreign Relations ranking member Joseph Biden, D-Del., expressed any immediate concerns over the nomination, potentially paving the way for a smooth confirmation.

Senate GOP leaders are also working with Democrats to confirm John Bolton's nomination to continue as ambassador to the United Nations. Bolton's nomination was sent to the Senate this afternoon. The Frist aide did not rule out other legislative items as well, including a domestic surveillance bill and legislation to fend off a Medicare physician pay cut. House leaders were not saying much about their plans, although their agenda appeared to be shrinking.

"My feeling is this is going to be a very short lame-duck session," said one Hastert aide. Meanwhile, Bush this afternoon had lunch at the White House with House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., and Minority Whip Steny Hoyer, D-Md. In brief remarks to reporters afterward, he described the session as "friendly." The president meets Friday with Reid and Minority Whip Richard Durbin, D-Ill.

Christian Bourge and Megan Scully contributed to this report.

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