Legislative Activity

The Congress left for its two week spring recess on Friday, March 14. At 1:40 a.m. on that day, the Senate held the 44th roll call vote of a marathon session, which began on Thursday, as it passed the Fiscal Year 2009 Budget Resolution (S. Con. Res. 70) by a vote of 51-44. In this one session the Senate held more roll call votes than had been cast since the beginning of the year. The Resolution contemplates a spending plan of about $3 trillion. During the week-long debate on the Resolution, the Senate rejected an amendment offered by Senator Jim DeMint (R-SC) to ban individual earmarks for one year. The Senate adopted an amendment supporting the extension of tax breaks for lower income taxpayers by a vote of 99-1 and rejected an amendment extending the remaining tax cuts enacted in 2001 and 2003 by a vote of 47-52. The House adopted its Budget Resolution (H.Con.Res. 312) on March 13 by a vote of 212-207. It rejected an alternative budget offered by the Ranking Member of the Budget Committee, Representative Paul Ryan (R-WI) which would have set the spending level at $973 billion for Fiscal Year 2009 and assumed extensions of the 2001 and 2003 tax cuts by a vote of 157-263.

In its final act before leaving for recess, the House passed the RESTORE Act (H.R. 3773) which would amend the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act of 1978 to establish procedures for authorizing the acquisition of foreign intelligence by eavesdropping on phone calls and e-mails inside the United States. The vote was 213- 197. President Bush has promised to veto the House bill if it was adopted by Congress because it does not contain an immunity provision which would shield telecommunication companies from some 40 lawsuits alleging that the companies violated the plaintiff's rights by allowing the government to eavesdrop without a court order in the wake of the September 11, 2001 attacks. The Senate passed a version of the bill in February by a vote of 68-29. The Senate bill contains the immunity provision the President supports while the House version would only allow the companies to present evidence to a judge and let the court determine their liability.

On January 28 the Economic Stimulus Act of 2008 (H.R. 5140) was introduced in the House and was quickly passed the following day by a vote of 385-35. The Senate subsequently approved the bill by a margin of 81-16 and it was signed into law (P.L. 110-185) by the President on February 13. The Act provides for more than $103 billion in tax rebates for individual taxpayers and about $43 billion in accelerated depreciation for certain business assets.

The House failed to override President Bush's veto of the Intelligence Authorization Act (H.R. 2082) on March 1, by a vote of 225-188, well short of the two-thirds majority required by the Constitution. The President objected to provisions in the legislation which would limit the CIA's interrogation techniques to those allowed in the Army Field Manual and prohibit harsh methods such as waterboarding. This was the ninth veto of the Bush presidency, with all but one of the vetoes coming in the past ten months.

On March 11, the House voted to institute a new ethics enforcement system which would allow a panel of outsiders to review complaints of ethics violations by Members of the House and decide whether to refer the matter to the Committee on Standards of Official Conduct. Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) and Minority Leader John Boehner (R-OH) would have to agree on six people of "exceptional public standing", who cannot be current Members of Congress or registered lobbyists, to serve on the panel.

The Senate observed the 167th anniversary of a unique feature of that body's rules of proceedings on March 5. On that date in 1841, the Senate conducted its first filibuster lasting six days when several Senators objected to the firing of some printers employed by the Senate. While the use of the filibuster has been relatively rare over the life of that institution, it has become more frequent in recent years. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D- NV) has accused the Republicans of conducting 72 filibusters since the inception of the 110th Congress. Minority Leader Mitch McConnell contends that number is "not accurate."

Another Senate institution observed a significant event on February 7 when Senator Daniel Inouye (D-. HI) cast his 15,000th roll call vote. He joined the exclusive company of Strom Thurmond (R-SC), Robert Byrd (DWV), and Ted Kennedy (D-MA) as the only Senators in the history of that chamber to cast that many votes.

Issues to Come

When the Congress returns from its recess in the first week of April, Majority Leader Reid has indicated he intends to have the Senate take up consideration of the Foreclosure Prevention Act of 2008 (S. 2636). In February, the Senate had rejected a cloture vote intended to allow consideration of the bill but it appears Senator Reid believes the deteriorating housing market calls for renewed consideration of this measure. The bill would give bankruptcy judges the authority to modify the terms of home mortgages during bankruptcy proceedings.

House Democrats, led by the Chairman of the Committee on Financial Services, Representative Barney Frank (D-MA), are working on a plan which would allow the Federal Housing Administration (FHA) to assist distressed homeowners in renegotiating their mortgages. The plan would provide up to $300 billion in guarantees to new lenders. The House Democratic Leadership would like to see this legislation on the floor in the next few weeks. The Chairman of the Senate Banking Committee, Senator Chris Dodd (D-CT), is developing a similar plan for Senate consideration.

The Senate may also turn to consideration of America's Climate Security Act (S. 2191) sometime this Spring. This is the climate change legislation which would require the Environmental Protection Agency to establish a greenhouse gas (GHG) registry and a GHG emission allowance transfer cap and trade system. The bill is strongly opposed by the National Association of Manufacturers and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. The Senate will also likely take up the Patent Law Reform Act (S. 1145) which, as the title implies, would enact comprehensive patent law reform. (For a more detailed review of this issue, see the following article.)

The Administration has stated that it intends to send the proposed Colombia Free Trade Agreement (FTA) to Congress shortly after the Easter Recess. Under the fast track rules for consideration of FTAs, Congress will have 90 legislative days to pass or reject the Colombia Agreement with no amendments allowed during consideration.

Both the Senate and the House hope to take up the Conference Report to the Higher Education Amendments which passed the House on February 7 (H.R.4137) and the Senate on July 24 (S.1642). This legislation concerns universities, colleges and federal financial aid. Both Chambers also plan to consider the Supplemental Appropriations bill.

Finally, for the first time in history it appears likely that both major parties will nominate sitting Senators to run for President. This being the case there will most likely be a series of votes on politically divisive issues on the Senate Floor to force the respective candidates to take unpopular positions or positions inconsistent with previous votes or face criticism for missing votes on important issues.