Congress faces Sept. backlog, prospect of lame duck

Only one of the 13 annual spending bills has been enacted.

With the Senate operating in a highly charged partisan atmosphere and fiscal 2005 appropriations bills lagging behind schedule, it appears doubtful that Congress -- once it reconvenes immediately after Labor Day --can finish work by its Oct. 1 target adjournment date.

On appropriations, only one of the 13 annual spending bills has been enacted. Conferences on defense and transportation reauthorization bills remain unfinished; a short-term extension of federal transportation programs will expire at the end of the fiscal year. Also pending is the conference committee on the corporate tax bill designed to lift European Union trade sanctions. And there is an expectation that Congress will act on recommendations to overhaul intelligence operations, as proposed by the national commission that investigated the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. A lame duck session appears inevitable after the November elections, although none of the congressional leaders or their staff is willing to acknowledge that publicly. Leadership aides in both parties repeatedly have said it is still too early to tell whether Majority Leader Frist will keep the Senate in session past the end of September in an effort to pass appropriations bills, and House GOP leaders so far also are evasive. "I'm not even going to speculate," said a senior GOP aide.

Of the spending bills, only the Defense appropriations bill has been enacted, and three have not yet passed the House. The biggest domestic spending bill of them all -- the Labor-HHS measure -- is expected to be one of the first bills brought up in the House next month, but the emphasis appears to be on getting the fiscal 2005 Homeland Security appropriations bill completed. That measure has passed the House and been cleared by the Senate Appropriations Committee, but still faces Senate floor debate and the inevitable conference committee. At some point, several, if not all, remaining spending bills are expected to be rolled into an omnibus appropriations measure, but the timing on that is unclear.

House Republican leaders have spurned Democratic calls for action this month on overhauling intelligence operations, but political pressures are building to address the national commission's recommendations in some form before adjournment, and preferably before the election. Several GOP aides indicated the House would take up intelligence overhaul legislation when it returns from the summer recess. A spokesman for Minority Leader Daschle said the Democratic leader would push Frist for passage of legislation early in September, along with the Homeland Security spending bill. Each party also will bring up issues with the election in mind: Frist is expected to renew his push to confirm President Bush's remaining judicial nominations and may bring up a constitutional amendment to prohibit flag burning. House Majority Leader DeLay has promised a September vote on a constitutional amendment designed to bar gay marriage. For their part, Democrats are likely to continue using parliamentary tactics to draw attention to their priorities, including increasing the minimum wage and passing a drug reimportation bill.