In case anyone needed reminding of how consumed Congress is by just two issues at the moment, GOP senators left yesterday’s policy lunch with matching talking point cards — one with a small graphic of the Supreme Court, the other with a photo of a hurricane.
Only five daring lawmakers convened hearings to compete with the morning appearance of chief justice nominee John Roberts before the Senate Judiciary Committee. And one of the four, Sen. Rick Santorum (R-Pa.), cleverly changed the focus of his pre-planned hearing, from nonprofit organizations to nonprofit organizations in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina.
Santorum noted the fortunate coincidence that all three of his invited charity groups happened to be involved in the disaster relief effort, but turned skeptical at the suggestion that “Katrina-izing” the people’s business was turning into a trend.
“In this case, the parallel is pretty obvious,” Santorum said.
Sen. Joseph Biden’s (D-Del.) immersion in Roberts was so complete that, heading for the policy lunch, he mistakenly referred to the judge as “Ginsburg” and volleyed away a ubiquitous Katrina question by explaining that preparing his confirmation questions had taken up the majority of his time. Still, Biden defended the chamber’s ability to manage both hurricane reconstruction and the ongoing war in Iraq while dealing with Roberts.
“We ought to be able to walk and chew gum at the same time,” Biden said.
For many on the Hill, the priority most in danger of slipping through the cracks is entitlement cuts mandated by the congressional budget resolution but put off to accommodate the response to Katrina. Democrats are strategizing on how to turn the month-long budget reconciliation delay into an indefinite one, with Republicans parrying that they can walk, chew gum and tighten penalties for sex offenders at the same time.
“This is something that can help bring the nation together” during a post-Katrina mourning period that has turned partisan, said Charlie Keller, spokesman for Rep. Ginny Brown-Waite (R-Fla.), whose sex-offender verification bill was folded into a broad package that House Judiciary Committee Chairman James Sensenbrenner (R-Wis.) shepherded to a floor vote today.
“While the House is trying to continue its business of the things American people are looking for, I think cracking down on sex offenders definitely falls under that category,” Keller said. House GOP leadership agreed, touting an appearance by Sensenbrenner and his cosponsors in addition to one from the House “Lawsuit Abuse and Voter Values Public Affairs Teams” cheerleading for Roberts’s confirmation, on which they have no vote.
The Congressional Hispanic Caucus was kept busy by a three tasks, preparing for its institute’s annual convention this week, releasing its first survey on corporate employment of Hispanic-Americans and using the hurricane to push for an abandonment of mandated cuts in food stamp funding.
“One of the methods we can use to get attention for that is to put out [word of] the importance of food stamps for those who have suffered because of Katrina,” said Michael Levin, spokesman for CHC member Rep. Joe Baca (D-Calif.). As for the other major story at hand, “I was going to say ‘who’s John Roberts,’ but I guess that wouldn’t be a good answer,” Levin joked.
Lest the public worry that Roberts and Katrina have intercepted integral deliberation, Sen. Bob Bennett (R-Utah) offered to set it straight.
“You’re making too big a deal out of it,” Bennett said. “Of course the Senate set aside other things to deal with emergencies. Yeah, we delayed the debate over Hawaiian statehood. We’re carrying forward in a normal fashion and I think we’ll be fine.”
Normal Hill sights were in abundance, with crews of grassroots lobbyists visiting staffers to argue for their cherished causes. The National Association of Insurance and Financial Advisers (NAIFA) dispatched local representatives from as far away as Colorado to peer at Capitol maps and promote their call to make September “Life Insurance Awareness Month.”
A cadre from environmental group American Rivers was also seen traipsing through the halls, although “River Lobby Day” had the perfect news peg lined up. “The Mississippi River and its tributaries are lined with countless miles of levees,” said American Rivers president Rebecca Wodder in a Katrina response statement. “Each of these provides an unfounded sense of security for the communities behind them.”