By Patrick OConnor - 07/11/06 12:00 AM EDT
The ability of Republican leaders to hammer out deals on a number of pending conference negotiations over the next three weeks will set the stage for the August recess.
The House and Senate are deadlocked on immigration reform, the most prominent issue at this stage in the election cycle, but negotiations also have stalled on a number of other priority bills that leaders would like to resolve during the July scramble.
Lobbying and pension reform remain the most well-known bills for which conference negotiations are at a standstill, and a win on either would be a boost for GOP lawmakers heading into the fall election season.
Likewise, failure to make progress on either front will give Democrats more fodder in their own campaigns to criticize Republicans for their inability to legislate, a theme that has become more pronounced this election year.
Republican leaders in the House will be offering legislation catering to both wings of their party in the coming weeks — but not at the same time.
House leaders are throwing red meat to their socially conservative members in the form of the American Values Agenda, which includes a ban on gay-marriage, federal protections on the Pledge of Allegiance and increased enforcement mechanisms for gambling on the Internet.
Some centrist Republicans have signaled their unease with aspects of the agenda, but House leaders also plan to move forward with parts of the centrist-driven Suburban Agenda, including a potential vote later this month on a bill from Rep. Nancy Johnson (R-Conn.) to set standards for computerized health records.
In addition to the American Values Agenda, Republican leaders in the House also have promised their members a floor debate on the sunset commission, which would recommend doing away with certain government programs it deems waste, and budget-process reform, which could divide conservatives from their centrist counterparts during a potential roll call on either issue.
Congress’s most basic function of funding the federal government will be a major focus during the brief fall session. The House has completed 10 of its 11 appropriations bills this year and awaits Senate action on priority measures to fund the military and the Department of Homeland Security.
Republican leaders in the House also face a sizable hurdle in addressing a minimum-wage increase that was added to the bill funding the Department of Labor and the Department of Health and Human Services.
House Majority Leader John Boehner (R-Ohio) opposes the increase on policy grounds but has conceded to at least one member that the leadership will address the issue before the bill comes to the floor. The last time Congress approved a wage increase, in 1996, labor spent money pressuring vulnerable Republicans during the August recess, forcing leaders to bring the legislation to the floor despite the objections of conservatives who dominated the leadership ranks at the time.
Leaders have apparently cleared the way for a renewal of the Voting Rights Act later this week after shoring up support from Republican lawmakers who opposed the measure because it requires multilingual ballots in select jurisdictions and sets what some Southern members argue are extraneous racial guidelines in others.
A leadership aide said the leaders have had “many conversations” with rank-and-file members since they were forced unexpectedly to cancel a vote last month in the face of significant opposition from rank-and-file Republicans. Members of the Georgia delegation will have two amendments on the floor to revise the bill in a way that would deemphasize some of the criteria used to determine racial discrimination.
An amendment to stop federal funding for multilingual ballots failed just before the recess before garnering 167 votes of support, which a number of aides suggested might clear the way on the voting-rights bill.
Last year GOP lawmakers closed the summer session with a flourish, passing the massive transportation bill, a package of incentives to expand domestic energy production and a free-trade pact with six countries in Central America and the Caribbean.
On the trade front this year, a free-trade bill with Oman is expected on the floor next week, a Republican leadership aide said, and the Ways and Means Committee has scheduled a hearing on a free-trade bill with Peru for tomorrow.
The Peru bill and legislation to upgrade the trading status of Vietnam are both administration priorities, Republican aides and lobbyists said, but those bills become increasingly difficult to pass in the fall because GOP lawmakers in labor-heavy districts will be extraordinarily reluctant to approve any trade legislation so close to an election.
Security has been a major theme this election year, and more votes could be coming.
While lawmakers in both chambers are expected to address further curbs on North Korea’s nuclear capabilities after that country’s test launch of missiles last week, House leaders could allow a vote later this month on legislation allowing the United States to share nuclear technology with India.
House hearings on the Senate immigration bill have dimmed any hopes that Congress will approve a compromise package before the August recess, even though the Senate and the administration appear to be inching closer to a House plan to move border and workplace enforcement before addressing guest-worker reforms. And there has been little evident progress on lobbying or pension reform since those bills passed the House.
Boehner, who has grown increasingly irritated with the pension negotiations, has told reporters there will be a deal before the August recess, and his ability to deliver will be determined by month’s end.