WASHINGTON - Congress is back in session following the long August recess.
But a bare handful of working days are scheduled before Congress abandons
Capitol Hill again, this time for election campaigning of unusually high stakes
for the midterm of a presidency.
Republicans are the majority party in both the House of Representatives and
the Senate. By capturing 16 seats in the House and six in the Senate,
Democrats can return to the majority in both chambers. With majority status
committee chairmanships and enormous authority over which priorities will be
pursued, which bills will get a hearing, which amendments will advance.
Allocations for majority staff are larger as well, and more hands on deck also
contribute to the difference between playing defense against majority
and originating priority legislation.
Many observers expect lawmakers to extend their stay in Washington into
early October, despite the currently scheduled adjournment date of Sept. 29. In
any case, the majority GOP has established a modest agenda for September,
including work on defense spending, homeland security and other appropriations
bills popular with core Republican voters. Congress may even go so far as to
install a fence on the nation's southern border and call it immigration reform.
But for any other appropriations bills to be finalized before the November
elections, they will have to be perceived as helpful or at least not harmful to
Republicans, which means in part - not too popular with Democratic voters.
This means that after Oct. 1, the beginning of fiscal year 2007 most
government programs will have to be funded by continuing resolutions. If past
performances repeat themselves, the full federal budget may not be signed into
until late January of 2007 or later.
Between the early November elections and the commencement of the 110th
Congress in the first days of January, Congress may return to Washington for one
of its ''lame duck sessions.'' If so, the nation as a whole, and Indian country
in particular, must be on the alert for the unexpected. With voted-out
members serving out their terms, returning members eyeing the political
as it will shape up once November winners take office in January, and the
influence of the presidency reduced heading into Bush's final two years, the
conventional political motivations may not to apply to any votes taken, and the
regular order of Congress will certainly not to apply to any issues that may
be taken up.
In recent years, Indian country has made out fairly well from the famous
''flurry of activity'' that ends every session of Congress, as the sponsors of a
host of bills that will die without action discover the bargaining power to
resurrect their priorities for a ''unanimous consent'' vote. It's a process
that seems to work for Indian country more often than not, though we'll
probably never know how. But in a lame duck session, the usual processes may
work in quite the same way, so all bets are off.
It's customary and accurate to think of congressional members as being in a
rush to leave Washington for election campaigns that will seal their political
fate, and this year is no exception in that respect. But the rush is on for
campaigns that will prove remarkably hushed. With all of the indicators
turning up trump cards for Democrats, from fund-raising to poll numbers to the
president's unpopularity to the myriad failures of the current 109th Congress
and the disillusionment within conservative circles, GOP candidates can't win
on national issues such as the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the federal
budget, the political ethics of the most corrupt Congress in American history
the accomplishments of the most ''do-nothing Congress'' in decades. But
President Bush's one unequivocal accomplishment - keeping the nation safe from
terrorist attack a full five years after the atrocities of Sept. 11, 2001 -
complements the traditional Republican edge on issues of national defense and
So while the president harps away on that theme in every imaginable
variation between now and November, Republican strategy calls for candidates to
for some benefit from that direction while forsaking national perspectives of
their own in favor of local issues. By winning votes in distinct states and
districts on strictly local issues, Republicans hope to limit their inevitable
losses and somehow retain majority control on Capitol Hill. Democrats, by
and large, are content to let the Republican collapse run its course.
The wild card in all of this is whether some strange twist of war will hand
Republicans a patriotic turnout at the polls, somewhat in the way a policy
victory for Democrats on the Vietnam War paved the way to a 20-year GOP reign
(the Carter anomaly excepted) over the presidency.
Whatever their outcome, the upcoming elections - perhaps more than any other
since the decisive arrival of television in politics all the way back in
1960 - will be left in the hands of local voters