The Speaker’s Lobby: The Kitchen Sink

By: Chad Pergram, FOX News

15 December 2009

It’s technically called the Fiscal Year 2010 Defense Appropriations bill.

But for our purposes, this piece of legislation is the kitchen sink.

Senate leaders have set a year-end deadline for approving health care reform. But the only remaining piece of legislation Congress truly has to pass before calling it quits for the year is this package to fund the military. And do lots of other things, too.

Sure, the bill will spend $626 billion on the Pentagon and pay for wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. But Democratic Congressional leaders will also stock this legislation with nightstands, lampshades, refrigerators, ceiling fans, pie safes, microwave ovens, chaise lounges, iPod docks, bidets and probably a few beanbag chairs.

Not to mention the kitchen sink.

For Congress, the defense spending bill is the legislative equivalent of the last helicopter out of Saigon. Either hitch a ride on this Huey as it lifts off from embassy rooftop or be left behind. Which is why the Democratic Congressional leadership is packing the defense bill with a surfeit of must-pass items.

Here are a few:

Expect the legislation to include an extension of rates and exemptions for the estate tax. If the House and Senate don’t reach a final agreement, the estate tax could disappear in January. And return at a later date. That scenario prompted one senior House aide to morbidly predict the country would witness a spike in the death rate. In other words, some families might “pull the plug on grandma,” to use the vernacular of the August town meetings, to avoid getting slapped with a tax when they inherit her estate.

How’s that for turning the argument on its ear. Who would have thought that less government intervention could actually create private death panels?

Secondly, the legislation could include a six-month extension of unemployment benefits. And third, it’s possible Democrats could attach some sort of a job-creation plan to the defense spending bill. Or, try to move that piece of legislation by itself.

Then there’s the need to raise the debt ceiling.

Just Friday, House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-MD) was prepared to raise the debt limit by as much as $1.9 trillion. But the leader scrapped that plan Monday night. Moderate Senate Democrats won’t support raising the debt limit unless they secure a vote on creating a commission to better manage government finances.

House Democrats are essentially subject to one animal now: The U.S. Senate. The hour is so late that the House can only approve what the Senate can also stomach.

“We’re working toward a short-term debt extension,” Hoyer said, indicating he now favored a stopgap increase to “get us through February.” Senior House sources indicated the House would only have to increase the debt ceiling by $300 billion if it was a temporary increase.

But, even as Hoyer and Co. write the kitchen sink bill, no one truly knows what the end-game is.

First, they can’t expect much help from the GOP. House Republicans are usually reliable votes on military matters. But in a letter to House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-CA), 174 Republicans said they couldn’t support the package if Democrats latch the debt ceiling hike to the bill. Meantime, Democrats may have lost the support of some fiscally-conscious “Blue Dogs” In order to vote to increase the debt ceiling, the Blue Dogs wanted to require Congress to pay for expenditures as it accumulates them. And liberal, anti-war Democrats are dubious about funding any defense spending bill as long as the U.S. has troops engaged in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Technically, this all needs to be worked out by Friday or the Pentagon runs out of money. The House and Senate may be forced to craft a short-term military spending bill that’s only valid a few days until they can approve the larger, “kitchen sink” legislation next week. And even when Congress does finish the legislation, it will take days to scrub the bill to find out what “sweeteners” Democrats and Republicans alike tucked into the legislation. Pet projects. Or in most cases, provisions to help secure the votes of wavering lawmakers.

And then there’s another factor that yielded its head late Monday night.

The Obama Administration is poised to announce its plan today to start shuttering the prison at Guantanamo Bay and transport prisoners held there to a federal correctional facility in Thomson, IL. Members of both parties are incensed by this decision. They simply don’t see the need to house accused terrorists on U.S. soil. Expect lawmakers to scramble to place restrictions on transferring detainees to Illinois.

Of course, this is all cast against the backdrop of health care reform. The Senate remains far from approving its version of the bill. Sen. Joe Lieberman (I-CT) threatened to kill the plan over the weekend. Democrats might not be able to approve a package without Lieberman’s support. And Lieberman scored a major victory when House Democrats decided to drop a plan to allow persons as young as 55 to “buy-in” to the Medicare program to receive health benefits.

Lieberman’s support is also contingent on the plan having no “public option,” where persons can purchase coverage from the government. Most House members weren’t even aware of Lieberman’s maneuver since they were so focused on the shape and scope of the kitchen sink bill.

“There’s about four people in the negotiations. And about four-thousand speculating,” said Rep. Rob Andrews (D-NJ). “I think people over here are keeping their powder dry until the Senate passes a bill.”

But Lieberman’s ploy wasn’t lost on Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee (D-TX), one of the most-liberal lawmakers on Capitol Hill and a strong advocate for a government-run health program.

“One senator should not stop health care reform” excoriated Jackson Lee. The Texas Democrat then called on Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV) to use a special set of rules to approve the health care bill. Those guidelines would require just a simple majority and not the supermajority necessary to halt a filibuster.

The other major phenomenon facing lawmakers is Christmas. Lawmakers want to ditch Washington as fast as they can. And with Christmas coming next week, Steny Hoyer told reporters the House would “probably” be in session Saturday, if not next week as well.

Smart lawmakers know that time is their most-valuable commodity. Which may explain why only 347 of the House’s 435 members bothered to jet back to Washington Monday evening to vote on two pedestrian bills that the House adopted unanimously.

It’s ironic that with all of the absences, one of the bills the House approved saluted the goals of National Runaway Prevention Month. The other measure commended Real Salt Lake for winning the Major League Soccer championship last month. Real Salt Lake defeated the Los Angeles Galaxy on penalty kicks after a 1-1 tie in the championship match.

Christmas is closing fast. Congress has played through regulation, injury and booking time and even an overtime period. And there’s no final score yet.

If Congress is still stymied late next week on health care reform and the kitchen sink bill, maybe Real Salt Lake’s victory offers lawmakers some inspiration on how to wrap things up quickly.

Perhaps Congress could decide the outcome on penalty kicks.

–         Chad Pergram covers Congress for FOX News. He’s won an Edward R. Murrow Award and the Joan Barone Award for his reporting on Capitol Hill.

–         The Speaker’s Lobby refers to a long, ornate hallway that runs behind the dais in the House chamber. Lawmakers, aides and journalists often confer there during votes.