Congress returns to stack of bills in lame-duck session

The House and Senate enter an uncertain lame-duck session Tuesday with little known about its length and breadth-even though it now appears the Democrats will remain in control of the Senate for at least another couple of weeks.

One thing for sure is that President Bush and members of Congress hope to approve the remaining fiscal 2003 appropriations bills, homeland security, remaining conference reports and dozens of pending nominations. But last week's election, tipping control of the 108th Congress to Republicans, is one more complication in a thicket of difficulties besetting the 107th Congress.

On the appropriations front, leaders once again will have to pass a continuing resolution, to keep the government operating without completion of 11 of the 13 fiscal 2003 spending bills. But as the week began, leaders had not determined whether the CR would carry the government past Nov. 22 and into December to finish the bills, or until February or March-as some have advocated-to avoid what could be a protracted, pre-holiday session and a messy situation in the Senate.

Indeed, while many lawmakers left town in October resigned to returning to finish the appropriations bills, the election results-in particular, the pending leadership change in the Senate-have cast serious doubt on Congress' ability to put a quick end to an already troubled fiscal 2003 budget process.

House appropriators still have their game face on, however. "It is our position that we still want to get our work done," said a panel spokesman.

At least publicly, House Speaker Dennis Hastert, R-Ill., is siding with appropriators in the push to finish the spending bills, according to Hastert's spokesman. Bush said last week that he, too, thinks Congress should finish the appropriations cycle before next year.

But it remained unclear whether disaffected Democrats and jubilant Republicans had any real interest in trying to reconcile differences between the House and Senate spending totals.

Appropriators have been working on ways to bridge the gaps. They could reach an agreement if it were left to the chairmen and ranking members of the appropriations panels.

But their solution inevitably would mean more spending than the White House has proposed. Given talk of a "Bush mandate" following GOP gains in last week's election, it appeared less likely that appropriators could muster support among Republicans to oppose their president on budget issues only days after a significant electoral victory.

Last week, incoming Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott, R-Miss., indicated his preference for Congress to come back this week and pass a months-long CR, lasting until February or March-a move that would avoid a protracted and painful debate over spending priorities. It also would sidestep the discord that would befall the Senate in December, when party control is expected to shift to Republicans with the anticipated swearing-in of Sen.-elect Jim Talent, R-Mo.

In addition, Sen. Ted Stevens, R-Alaska,-who would take over as chairman of the Appropriations Committee from Sen. Robert Byrd, D-W.Va.,-said before the election that he also wanted to avoid leadership entanglements, and he advocated a longer-term CR earlier this fall.

However, if Congress feels compelled to stay to finish the homeland security bill, appropriators would hope to use that time to work on spending measures. But while easier-to-pass bills might be completed, it would be much harder to address the bigger-ticket items-like the Labor-HHS spending bill-without movement on overall budget figures.

The House reconvenes Tuesday at 12:30 p.m. for morning hour and at 2 p.m. for legislative business to consider five bills under suspension of the rules. No votes are scheduled until Wednesday, when the House is slated to consider the continuing resolution.

The Senate reconvenes Tuesday at 1 p.m., and no votes are planned before 5 p.m.