Lawmakers try to keep their bills alive during final week

Rep. Mark Green’s (R-Wis.) legislation that would crack down on abuses against animals has an impressive 324 cosponsors. Green’s party controls Congress and the White House. And Green’s bill is going nowhere.

The legislation is one of many on its last breath as Congress inches closer to the end of its 109th session. But unlike the other thousands of bills that will formally die over the next several days, Green’s bill is backed by an overwhelmingly majority of lawmakers, making its inevitable demise more frustrating.

When bills fail to cross the finishing line of the president’s desk, the rationale usually is that “time ran out.” However, with politically popular legislation, the real culprit is usually a powerful subcommittee or committee chairman.

On Feb. 15, 2005, Green introduced a bill to strengthen laws against animal fighting. Two months later, 70 lawmakers had signed on as cosponsors and the Senate passed similar legislation by unanimous consent. By the end of February 2006, the number of cosponsors totaled 221. In mid-May, a subcommittee held a hearing on the bill.

On Sept. 20, in a video sent to Congress, wrestling-entertainment star Hulk Hogan stated, “The laws against animal fighting just aren’t tough enough.”

On Sept. 25, the Humane Society urged House Majority Leader John Boehner (R-Ohio) to put the bill on the House calendar.

Yet, nearly two years after it was introduced, hope is all that Green and his supporters have left.

“I am hopeful we will find a way to pass this legislation before the end of session,” Green wrote in an e-mail to The Hill.

A lobbyist familiar with the issue blames Judiciary Committee Chairman James Sensenbrenner Jr. (R-Wis.) for stifling its passage.

Wayne Pacelle, president and CEO of the Humane Society of the United States, said that Sensenbrenner “has been an impediment on this bill.” He says the group doesn’t know why the chairman, from Green’s own state and political party, is holding it up.

Judiciary Committee spokesman Terry Shawn did not know why the bill hasn’t been passed, but said “there certainly have been a number of priorities,” citing homeland security matters. He did not follow up on the matter.

Rep. John Conyers Jr. (D-Mich.), who is expected to head the Judiciary Committee in 2007, is a cosponsor on Green’s bill. But there is no next year for the retiring Green, who ran unsuccessfully for governor.

As time runs out in the Congress, politics can trump policy in deciding which bills become law. Even if a bill has more than enough support to pass if brought to the floor, powerful members and long-held vendettas can determine a bill’s fate.

Some lawmakers file discharge petitions to get their bills out of committee, trying to attach their legislation to appropriations bills or wage last-ditch efforts to get their objectives pushed through.

For Rep. Phil English (R-Pa.), who introduced a bill that would repeal Medicare’s outpatient therapy caps, time just isn’t on his side. His bill has 260 cosponsors.

“Frankly, it’s not our time yet,” said Julia Wanzco, English’s press secretary. “Patience is a virtue in the legislative process.”

Wanzco stressed that there have been other vehicles for her boss to accomplish his goal — other legislation has created a temporary fix, while his bill would permanently eradicate the healthcare caps.

Other bills require that companion legislation be passed along with them.

For instance, Sen. Pete Domenici (R-N.M.) has a series of three bills that would bolster research-and-development programs, each of which has at least 60 cosponsors. But each of the measures was relegated to a separate committee, making passage difficult, Domenici’s spokesman Matt Letourneau said. The bills have since been folded into a broad leadership bill, which may or may not be passed this year, he said.

Rep. Bob Filner (D-Calif.) introduced legislation in January 2005 that would allow World War II Merchant Marines and Naval and Army transportation personnel to be eligible for benefits. He’s got 267 cosponsors, but it hasn’t yet passed.

“It has a bipartisan majority, but the Veterans [Affairs] Committee Chairman [Steve Buyer (R-Ind.)] just won’t move it,” Filner told The Hill.

The Veterans Affairs Committee’s press secretary, Brooke Adams, said that Buyer has policy concerns with the bill.

And even though Filner had so many cosponsors, his discharge petition fell short by about 40 signatures, locking the bill in committee.

Leadership officials have warned their members not to sign on to discharge petitions. It is rare for GOP members to sign them because they are viewed as a rebuff of their leaders. Yet the week after the GOP washout on Election Day, Reps. Walter Jones (R-N.C), Ron Paul (R-Texas), and Ted Poe (R-Texas) put their names on discharge petitions.

Explaining his boss’s decision to sign a petition on an education bill, Paul spokesman Jeff Deist said, “I think he was hopeful that leadership would do something about it and … there’s no reason to give deference to the leadership if it’s going to be different in the spring.”

Sometimes a bill would be a piece of a larger puzzle that never gets discussed. Debate on Social Security reform, for example, was crucial for Rep. Buck McKeon’s (R-Calif.) chances for his legislation, which had 326 cosponsors.

“The thought was that it would be incorporated into any Social Security reform package, [but] time ran out. We never got that far,” said James Geoffrey, McKeon’s press secretary.

One Democratic aide, who chose to remain anonymous because of the sensitivity of his boss’s bill, said it all comes down to money: “[Many bills have] a lot of members’ support, but they’re not paid for,” he said. “There’s a cost. It’s not in the budget. It’s not paid for; it ought to be, but it’s not.”

Sen. James Inhofe (R-Okla.), who introduced a bill that would give Native American code-talkers commemorative medals, expressed frustration earlier this year when his bill stalled.

“The hard part of the bill was you have to have two-thirds of members to get it out of the Banking Committee. We had 79 on this,” Inhofe said. “There wasn’t any opposition to it, [but] a lot of people don’t want to add any more commemorative medals.”

Things changed in September, however, as Inhofe’s press secretary Ryan Thompson had breaking news to relay: “I’m doing fantastic,” he said. “The code-talkers bill went late last night.”

Madeleine Scinto contributed to this article.