Republicans glumly open lame-duck session of Congress

Tuesday, November 14, 2006

The Senate majority leader urged his party to listen to the voters who ousted them.


The Associated Press

WASHINGTON -- Lawmakers present and future mingled in the Capitol's marble hallways Monday as Republicans exiled from power in last week's elections glumly opened a lame-duck session and wide-eyed Democrats prepared to take over Congress.

Losing majorities in the House and Senate last week, Republicans of the fading 109th Congress still faced weighty work before year's end: keeping the government in operating funds, voting on a trade agreement with Vietnam and confirming a new defense secretary.

Senate majority leader Bill Frist, who is considering a bid for the GOP presidential nomination in 2008, envisioned Congress meeting three more weeks this year, this one and the first two weeks of December.

He urged Republicans not to be discouraged by this "time of transition" -- and to listen to the voters who ousted them from power.

"Change can be tough," said Frist, R-Tenn., whose self-imposed 12-year term limit in the Senate comes to an end in seven weeks. "That is a very powerful message from the American people: Move forward and move forward together."

Bipartisanship was more a matter of pragmatism, noted Frist's successor.

"We can't accomplish anything as Democrats standing alone. As we've shown, the Republicans couldn't accomplish theirs standing alone," said Dem-ocratic Sen. Harry Reid of Nevada, who will become the new majority leader in January.

Returning lawmakers had company from more than 50 House members-to-be and most of the 10 senators-in-waiting. The incoming freshmen attended orientation meetings Monday and embarked on toast-of-the-town schedules -- from private tours of the Capitol and the White House to dinner with Frist and a reception with President Bush.

But it wasn't out with old, in with the new just yet.

A lame-duck session could last until Dec. 22 with a two-week break for Thanksgiving. On their agenda is nine spending bills, reviving popular business and middle-income tax breaks, trade agreements with Vietnam and Peru; bioterrorism legislation and giving doctors a reprieve from billions of dollars in scheduled Medicare payment cuts.

Echoes of 1994

The Senate started work Monday on a spending bill for veterans and military construction, while the House took up the Vietnam trade bill ahead of Bush's scheduled visit to the country Friday.

The atmosphere Monday echoed 1994, when Congress briefly returned after the GOP landslide to ratify a trade bill. Then, there were dozens of the "living dead" -- Democratic lawmakers who lost re-election bids -- who returned to Washington still smarting over their losses. There are at least 26 defeated Republican incumbents in that situation this year. Ten races, all in the House, are still undecided.

"I regret that I will not be a part of" the next Congress, Rep. Clay Shaw, R-Fla., said during debate on the trade bill. A fixture of the House for a quarter century and a chief author of the welfare reform law, Shaw was on the verge of ascending to the chairmanship of the tax-writing Ways and Means Committee before he was toppled by Democrat Ron Klein and other incumbent Republicans faltered.

Away from the television lights, other drama emerged as the House speaker-to-be, Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., prepared to take the reins of the House and Reid did the same in the Senate.

The behind-the-scenes agenda included leadership elections and jockeying for committee and subcommittee chairmanships in the next Congress, exposing divisions on both parties.

On the Democratic side, politicking is under way for party leadership elections scheduled for Thursday. Rep. John Murtha, D-Pa., a Marine Corps veteran and hawk on military issues who became the darling of the anti-war movement after calling for a U.S. pullout from Iraq, is running against Democratic Whip Steny Hoyer of Maryland to be majority leader.

Pelosi is backing longtime ally Murtha in the majority leader race. Hoyer is an old Pelosi rival dating back to a bitter 2001 leadership race.

House Republicans also face leadership contests, with three lawmakers hoping to succeed Speaker Dennis Hastert, R-Ill., as the GOP leader. Hastert said last week that he doesn't want to be minority leader.

Majority Leader John Boehner, R-Ohio, now No. 2 to Hastert, is favored to get the job, but he faces challenges from Mike Pence, an ambitious conservative from Indiana, and from Energy and Commerce Committee Chairman Joe Barton, a 12-term Texan mounting a long-shot bid.

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