Senate faces long post-election to-do list

Faced with a massive workload after Tuesday's elections, Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist, R-Tenn., is "reluctantly" backing off his insistence that the Senate leave town for good before Thanksgiving, a top aide said.

The to-do list includes nearly a half-trillion dollars worth of fiscal 2007 appropriations, including foreign aid, the space program, roads, schools, parks, hospitals, police, housing and assorted other items.

Right up until the recess, including in a Sept. 29 meeting with GOP leaders and the House and Senate Appropriations chairmen, Frist maintained the Senate would adjourn Nov. 17, when the current continuing resolution expires. But Frist budget aide Bill Hoagland said the majority leader is considering extending the session to mid-December to complete must-pass legislation, which House GOP leaders already acknowledged is likely in that chamber.

But aides in both chambers said the outcome of the elections might affect that schedule, if there is little appetite after Nov. 7 for a prolonged lame duck.

A good indicator of post-election feelings will be the length of the CR Congress must pass the week of Nov. 13. That could be among the first orders of business since President Bush is leaving Nov. 15 for a trip to Vietnam, Singapore and Indonesia.

In addition to 10 remaining appropriations bills, lawmakers are gearing up to tackle a bipartisan tax package extending popular breaks such as the research and development credit, welfare-to-work credit and deduction of state and local sales taxes.

Hoagland said the tax "extenders" bill might be coupled with Medicare legislation, such as a measure to prevent a scheduled 5 percent cut in physician payments, announced Wednesday by the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services. The American Medical Association blasted the move, saying it would reduce the number of patients physicians could see, force them to cut staff and postpone investments in technology and equipment.

Senate Finance Committee Chairman Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, said in a statement Thursday he was committed to passing legislation blocking the physician payment cuts before adjournment. But he acknowledged moving legislation before the year is out might prolong the session, and that lawmakers must come up with roughly $11 billion to offset the cost of blocking the cuts.

"The immediate challenge facing us is how to address the cost of avoiding the cuts since legislation in the Senate generally needs to be offset in order to advance," Grassley said.

The Senate has passed only two spending bills -- the Defense and Homeland Security measures -- the only fiscal 2007 appropriations bills to be signed into law. Frist plans to turn to the Military Construction and Veterans Affairs bill the week of Nov. 13, and will make a "good faith" effort to complete other bills in December if members are willing to stick around, Hoagland said. That timeframe might preclude Senate floor action on the more difficult bills such as the Labor-HHS measure.

A yearlong CR is unlikely because of strong objections from appropriators in both parties, meaning appropriators might have to swallow some form of an omnibus package or leave unfinished business for next year -- also an unpalatable prospect no matter who is in charge.

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