Key bills in hands of a few on the Hill

Conference committees hammering out deals on energy, Iraq, Medicare

October 23, 2003|By Julie Hirschfeld Davis | Julie Hirschfeld Davis,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON - This week, 84 House Republicans defied President Bush and their leaders to help pass a measure expressing the view that half the $20.3 billion Bush has sought for rebuilding Iraq should be in the form of a loan, not a grant.

The vote might have seemed like a problem for the president, coming after the Senate voted to attach such a condition to an $87 billion war spending bill that both chambers passed.

But Bush and Republican leaders in Congress have made clear that the loan provision won't survive - the president has threatened a veto. And with the power of a House-Senate negotiating process they control, Republicans can ensure that.

The war spending bill is one of the pivotal pieces of legislation whose fate now rests with small groups of lawmakers, picked by congressional leaders, who will merge competing House and Senate drafts. Those members will settle on final details, often in private meetings. Then the bill will return to the full Congress for a final yes-or-no vote.

These "conference committees" hold sway over some of the most pressing issues in Congress - from prescription drug coverage for seniors to the nation's energy policy - in one last spurt of bargaining as the year's session draws to a close.

"This is the witching hour for these bills," said Sen. John B. Breaux, a Louisiana Democrat who has served as a centrist broker between the two parties as conferences iron out differences. "It's a really chaotic situation."

After all the speeches are made, amendments proposed and votes cast, this is where legislation goes - away from TV cameras and the attention of most Americans - to be shaped by senior lawmakers, called "conferees." Afterward, the full House and Senate get one last chance to accept or reject the "conference report."

"In the end, you're in a position of voting for or against, and that's not always easy on big issues," said Sen. Olympia J. Snowe, a Maine Republican. "That's the leverage some of the conferees have."

That is especially true now. This fall provides the last chance before the 2004 election year for many lawmakers to put themselves on the record on issues that voters care most about. During election years, Congress typically avoids votes that could spell political peril.

"When a conference report hits the floor, you are then voting up or down on the whole subject matter," said former GOP Rep. Robert S. Walker of Pennsylvania, who now lobbies Congress. "So, then you have to decide, even if I don't like some of the details, can I really be against the entire notion of Medicare reform? Can I really afford to be against an entirely new energy policy?"

Conference committees allow the House and Senate to settle differences and pass identical bills - as the Constitution requires - before sending them to the president. They are also designed to gather lawmakers with expertise to sift through details that might be lost on others.

"Conferences have often been called the third house of Congress, where the real work of hammering out a final legislative product is accomplished," said Eric Ueland, a top aide to Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist of Tennessee. "In the right hands, they are an extremely effective tool to finishing legislative action. In the wrong hands, they're a recipe for disaster."

Few rules govern conferences - except that they must have at least one public meeting. They allow a group of key lawmakers, as well as the president, a chance to put their stamp on bills - and, in some cases, insert pet provisions - aware that the final measure will be a take-it-or-leave-it proposition. The White House and outside interest groups are better positioned to lobby a small group of negotiators than to sway a majority in the House or Senate.

The party in control of Congress, now the GOP, has the upper hand in the conferences. Its leaders have authority over nearly every aspect, from the agenda to finishing touches.

Democrats have complained recently that they have had little chance to press some of their top priorities in the sessions.

"We're cranky," said Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski, a Maryland Democrat. "We're getting very frustrated because this is supposed to be a public, transparent process that's inclusive, and this is becoming closed-door."

This week, a conference committee is completing work on a measure that will dictate energy policy, from new electricity rules to incentives for fuel production.

After two months of private negotiations, mostly among Republicans, Sen. Pete V. Domenici, a New Mexico Republican who chairs the Energy Committee, said yesterday that he hopes to propose a final deal on the measure this weekend.

That would pave the way for a public conference meeting on Tuesday and final House and Senate votes next week.

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