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Washington in brief

CONGRESS RAISES DEBT CEILING, PASSES FEDERAL SPENDING BUDGET

Congress has raised the limit on federal borrowing to $8.18 trillion, a
hike of $800 billion that brought an immediate reminder from Federal
Reserve Board Chairman Alan Greenspan that federal spending cannot expand
indefinitely without consequences.

The Bush administration has now presided over more than $2 trillion in
government borrowing over previous limits, an unprecedented pace even in
wartime. The budget deficit - the gap between federal income and spending
in a given fiscal year - exceeds $400 billion. The national debt, the total
amount owed by the United States to its many investors and creditors,
approaches $7.5 trillion. The debt covers the deficit, much as a household
loan might help make ends meet. But reducing a deficit, just like
economizing in a household, isn't the same as paying off a debt. At best it
means the debt is less. If the money saved gets spent again, stimulating a
need for still more borrowing, it doesn't mean even that much.

Austerity measures demanded by the White House, in a federal budget passed
days after the debt increase, resulted in cuts to some agencies with
programs that benefit tribes. On the whole though, staff members on the
House of Representatives Resource Committee - to the extent they'd been
able to work through the 3,000-plus page document by press time - felt that
tribal interests fared well enough, given that few agencies emerged
unscathed. Even a priority of the president's, the Yucca Mountain nuclear
waste site in Nevada, took a steep cutback in the final bill.

Pres. Bush had threatened to veto the $388 billion omnibus bill, funding
nine of 13 federal agencies, if increases in domestic spending exceeded 1
percent more than last year. (These nine include the Interior Department;
the other four agencies and the military had been previously funded.)
Congressional leaders proceeded to comb through the legislation for cuts
that helped the overall domestic budget stay within the president's stated
limit.

(But a surprise still lay in store, when lawmakers learned that a provision
had been inserted into the bill authorizing committees of Congress to
examine the tax returns of individual American citizens. A maelstrom of
criticism followed, despite assurances that the measure would be purged
from the bill before it was sent to the president for a signature. The
situation remained up in the air at press time.)

The budget trimming reduced the deficit, all right. But again, reductions
in the deficit simply mean the debt isn't growing quite as fast. So it will
take the country a little longer to reach the $8.18 trillion debt ceiling.
Again it's the debt - the government borrowing - that must cover the
deficit between income and spending.

All is not lost. Debt and deficit numbers may be unprecedented, but so is
the size and output of the U.S. economy. Bush is counting on his record tax
cuts to generate an upturn in federal tax revenue as private citizens put
their money to more productive use than the government would have managed,
had the same money been paid to the government in taxes. In a word, he is
banking on business growth to produce prosperity and tax receipts.

But with federal spending on a fast rocket to uncharted deeps of red ink,
doubt has grown among economists that revenues will catch up before either
the budget has to be radically disciplined, or the U.S. faces default on
some of its obligations.

In the meantime, Bush has fulfilled the warnings of Sen. Kent Conrad,
D-N.D., that savings will have to come from the relatively small portion of
the budget devoted to domestic discretionary spending - in essence
non-military, non-entitlement spending. That is where much of the funding
for Indian programs comes from, and where Congress may be tempted to find
savings in future for as long as the national debt exceeds its limits.

HOUSE HANGS A BIG ZERO ON STAND-ALONE INDIAN BILLS

The House of Representatives responded with inaction to a spate of
Indian-specific bills sent over from the Senate late in a crowded November
session, so that most and probably all of them have died on the vine and
will have to be taken up again, if at all, in the 109th Congress, expected
to convene on Jan. 3 of next year.

The current 108th Congress recessed for Thanksgiving and expects to
reconvene on Dec. 6 to reconsider passage of an intelligence reform bill,
as recommended by the 9/11 Commission in its July report. But the bill is
at impasse, embarrassingly for Pres. George W. Bush. All of which has led
to speculation that the unexpected December session may simply amount to a
show of respect for the president's wishes, without producing an
intelligence reform bill he can sign by the time the 108th Congress
adjourns for good on Dec. 7, as plans stand now.

In any case, Indian-specific bills are not likely to be high on the
congressional agenda in December, even though they'll be eligible for
passage. "At this point in the game, I don't know if they'll want to call
up a lot of stand-alone Indian bills," said Matt Streit of the House
Committee on Resources communications staff. Paul Moorehead of the Senate
Committee on Indian Affairs expressed similar misgivings, though neither he
nor Streit ruled out a breakthrough.

By far the greatest disappointment for tribes generally at the Thanksgiving
recess is the failure so far of the Indian Health Care Reform Act.
Negotiators from the Senate, House and White House were up until well after
midnight just before the recess, trying to agree on a reauthorization bill
the chambers could pass and the president sign. But in the end it was a
bridge too far, despite the collaboration of Sen. Ben Nighthorse Campbell
and Tommy Thompson, the secretary of Health and Human Services. Both men
had planned to leave government, but Thompson has suggested he'll
reconsider in view of Republican gains in the Nov. 2 elections.

Among the stand-alone Indian measures that have stalled in the House are a
bill for a feasibility study of a tribal financial institution, funding
reauthorization for the Administration for Native Americans, an act for
parity in the payment of damages to tribes from dam construction, and
"sense of the Senate" resolution 248 calling for legislation to settle the
trust fund accounts. Indian legislation has also languished in the Senate,
including two large technical amendments bills, S. 2843 and 1995.

REPUBLICANS CLOSE RANKS AROUND DELAY

Republicans in the House of Representatives have changed their own House
rules to permit Rep. Tom DeLay to continue serving as Majority Leader in
the event he's indicted.

A grand jury in Texas has indicted three DeLay associates over political
fundraising. DeLay himself has not been indicted, nor is he publicly known
to be under investigation. He has dismissed the grand jury proceedings as
politically motivated, and enough GOP delegates sided with him to change a
rule that has been on the books since 1993. DeLay has earned a world of
goodwill within the GOP for engineering changes in Texas congressional
districts that helped a handful of Republican candidates to victory Nov. 2.
He is a close political confederate of Pres. Bush.

DeLay has been named repeatedly in testimony before the Senate Indian
Affairs Committee on the lobbying activities of Jack Abramoff and his
communications associate, Michael Scanlon. Abramoff allegedly boasted to
multiple tribes of his influence with DeLay, leading the tribes to believe
Abramoff would be worth his large fees. Scanlon is a former DeLay staff
member. DeLay has denied wrongdoing in the case and has called for anyone
trading on his name to stop.

REPUBLICANS CONSIDER OUTFLANKING SENATE FILIBUSTER RULE

Republicans may take the radical step of outflanking the Senate filibuster
rule, an institution that permits Senators to hold the floor by "debating"
endlessly. As long as the debate goes on, the vote cannot be taken. Both
parties resort to the filibuster in hopes of preventing a decisive vote on
bills - or more to the point now, nominations - it opposes.

Even with next year's newly minted majority of 55 seats against the
Democrats' 44 and one Independent, Republicans will likely lack the 60
votes needed to end a filibuster and take a vote. The "supermajority" of 67
votes needed to change Senate rules such as the filibuster will be a still
further reach. But The Washington Post reports that Republicans could rule
from the chair, with Vice President Dick Cheney presiding, that "a
super-majority to end filibusters is unconstitutional for judicial
nominees." The anticipated Democratic challenge could be overruled by a
simple majority of 51 votes needed to uphold a ruling from the chair.

The extreme measure is the apparent follow-up to widely televised comments
of Sen. Bill Frist, R-Tenn., the Senate Majority Leader, to the effect that
the Democratic filibuster of judicial appointments "must end," if not one
way then another. The vaguely threatening formulation spurred speculation
that Republicans, empowered by the Nov. 2 elections, will take aggressive
action next year on a conservative agenda Democrats have stymied in part
during recent congressional sessions.

Democrats have used the filibuster rule throughout recent congressional
sessions to resist confirming Pres. Bush's more conservative nominees to
the federal judiciary.