House speaker: Lame duck session likely needed to finish spending bills

In perhaps his strongest statement yet on the likelihood of a lame duck session, House Speaker Dennis Hastert, R-Ill., told the Chicago Sun-Times Monday that he thinks Congress will probably need to come back after the election to finish fiscal 2003 appropriations bills.

But a House GOP leadership aide cautioned that nothing is set in stone, and the success of a lame-duck session depends heavily on the results of the upcoming election.

Hastert, in a meeting with the Sun-Times editorial board, said several problems arise if Congress waits to finish appropriations bills next year.

"We may have a war on, we may have a war supplemental, we may be starting to do a [fiscal 2004] budget and not having the [2003] budget complicates things," said Hastert, echoing concerns appropriators have raised for weeks. But if a lame duck does occur, Hastert said he would keep it short. "I would like to see it focused on our unfinished business and be able to get out of town," Hastert said.

A House GOP leadership aide acknowledged that a lame duck was looking probable, but said any session after the election would be "predicated on the Senate not being in chaos."

The aide said if the Senate "is in a position to get things done"-namely, if Sen. Jean Carnahan, D-Mo., wins election to complete the term for the seat she was appointed to after her husband's death and the Senate does not have to reorganize with a Republican majority for the remainder of the current 107th Congress-then House Republicans are more open to a lame duck.

"We just don't know what the dynamics are going to be" right now, said the aide.

Assuming Republicans stay in the majority in the House, different election results in the Senate could spur or stall action on the budget front. The best possible scenario for completing work on the 2003 appropriations bills, the aide said, could be if the Republicans win the majority in the Senate for the 108th Congress but Democrats retain the majority for the remainder of this Congress. The aide said that under that scenario, House leaders believe Senate Democratic chairmen would be more willing to cut deals while they are still in power.

However, if Democrats retain the Senate majority for the 108th and the rest of the 107th, the aide said the politics of the current stalemate could simply play out in the lame duck, producing little action.

And if former GOP Rep. Jim Talent beats Carnahan to give the GOP the majority in a lame-duck session, but Democrats still hold on to the Senate in the 108th Congress, any post-election session would likely accomplish little because the Democrats would have reason to obstruct things.

Asked Tuesday if the problems that have so far plagued the budget process-namely, the spending differences that separate parties, chambers and branches of government-would still be a problem regardless of the election scenario, House Appropriations Committee Chairman Bill Young, R-Fla., expressed optimism that tensions will ease later this fall.

"The problems may still be there, but the speaker might have a different way of dealing with them," said Young. "Once the election is over, I think the pieces fall into place a lot easier."