House, Senate pass another temporary spending bill to avoid shutdown

Unable to resolve disagreements about drought aid, Medicare givebacks and tax cuts, the House passed a continuing resolution lasting through Nov. 22 by a 228-172 vote and was preparing late Wednesday to leave Capitol Hill until a lame-duck session the week after Election Day-unless a Senate breakthrough on domestic security issues requires the House to return before then.

The Senate approved the CR later Wednesday under a unanimous consent agreement, but planned to be in session without votes Thursday. Senators will return to session next Wednesday.

House Republicans mapped their exit plan during a meeting Wednesday of the House Republican Conference. House Majority Leader Dick Armey, R-Texas, said the House is likely to return Nov. 12 for a week of work in a post-election lame duck, depending on the availability of conference reports.

However, Armey said he would assign "the lowest probability" to chances the House would be in session during the following week, Nov. 18-22. Senate leaders did not have detailed plans for sessions beyond next Wednesday's.

House Speaker Dennis Hastert, R-Ill., said the House could reconvene next week if the Senate moved homeland security legislation to a conference committee, a prospect that appeared possible but grew more unlikely during talks Wednesday. "I have put my members on notice to be here Wednesday," said Hastert. "We have a lot of legislation we are anxious to do."

House Democrats in debate on the continuing resolution charged that if the GOP leaders wanted to act on legislation, they should stay to do it. Instead, Democrats said Republican leaders were stymied over the budget stalemate and were recessing because they did not know how to fix the problem.

"They've lost their ability to govern-so the only thing they can apparently do now is not do things," said House Appropriations ranking member David Obey, D-Wis. "That is some recommendation to take to the American people."

House leaders had hoped to break for the elections at the end of last week, but reconsidered after about 20 GOP members said they were uncomfortable about recessing while the Senate continued to work.

The Senate is still expected to be in next week, although probably not for a full week or to consider a full schedule of business.

Interest among House Republicans in returning for another week waned after internal disagreements prevented them from developing a package of tax cuts-and the White House turned up the heat on members looking to add extra spending, such as drought aid and Medicare givebacks, to the CR.

The administration called several drought aid supporters to the White House Wednesday and told them to back off their demands unless they were prepared to offer offsets to cover their costs. Some continued to balk, but Hastert said they could deal with the drought situation when Congress comes back for the lame duck.

Ironically, the drought supporters also had a hand in killing the tax cuts. During the GOP Conference meeting, several members said the House should not be saying to some members that they can afford tax cuts while telling others that they could not provide money for drought-stricken areas in the Plains and West, sources said.

Publicly, House leaders wanted to put the blame on the Senate for failing to act on a host of bills. House Ways and Means Committee Chairman Bill Thomas, R-Calif., said the House has finished all the work it could before the election and there was little reason to be in session until the Senate caught up.

"Why hang around?" Thomas asked. "We have done homeland security. We have done Medicare. We sent all that stuff over there. When the Senate acts, we'll be back ready to act."

Rather than adjourn the House, GOP leaders are recessing subject to the call of the chair, leaving the option of returning at any date.

Under the Constitution, one chamber cannot be in session for more than three days with the other body adjourned. One leadership aide said the House probably would reconvene in pro forma session briefly every Tuesday and Thursday, as long as the Senate is in session. The House will be in pro forma session today and Friday.

Armey said he would give House members a 48-hour notice before requiring them to return to Washington.

Regardless of whether negotiators can cut a deal on homeland security, Congress faces a post-election lame-duck session to pass 11 of 13 unfinished FY03 spending bills.

"I would hope to be as brief as possible," Hastert said.

President Bush said Wednesday he would sign the $355.4 billion fiscal 2003 Defense appropriations bill, approved Wednesday by the Senate on a 93-1 vote.

"This defense budget will provide our troops with the best pay, the best equipment and the best possible training," Bush said. "It also sends an important signal that we are committed to defending freedom and defeating terror."

Brody Mullins contributed to this report.