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Congress has tasks before transition

Sun., Nov. 12, 2006

After months of partisan fighting and no-holds-barred campaigning, members of the U.S. House and Senate return to Washington, D.C., this week with no choice but to work together.

They left several major items – including most of the spending bills for the current fiscal year and important tax issues – undone when they broke for the campaigns at the end of September. They may work late into 2006 to complete that work, then come back with a change in regimes a few days later in 2007.

For Washington state, that means Sens. Patty Murray and Maria Cantwell will move into the majority in less than two months, while Eastern Washington Reps. Cathy McMorris and Doc Hastings will, for the first time, be in the minority.

“We (Democrats) got 48 hours to smile. Now it’s ‘Oh my God, we’ve got work to do,’ ” Murray said in an interview Friday.

For Murray, the switch from minority to majority is nothing new. She came in with a Democratic majority aided by Bill Clinton’s election in 1992 and was knocked into the minority with the Republican tide of 1994. Democrats regained the majority in 2001 but lost it in the 2002 election. Their majority might not hold past the 2008 election, she said.

“There’s always another day. The best legislators are the ones that remember that,” she said.

Being in the majority means control of the agenda and the committee chairmanships. Murray is in line to head up the Appropriations Transportation and Housing Subcommittee, which includes control over the money spent on federal highways and bridges. But as the senior Democrat on that subcommittee for several years, she’s worked closely with the current Republican chairman, Sen. Kit Bond of Missouri, and expects that to continue.

“I’m a pragmatist. I’m going to treat you with respect now so you’ll treat me with respect later,” she said.

Cantwell is the ranking Democrat on the Coast Guard and Fisheries subcommittee. She’s currently in China on a trade mission, but Murray said it’s likely that Cantwell will move to the top of that panel or one of the others on the Commerce Committee.

A spokeswoman said Cantwell is anxious to head the Coast Guard subcommittee, which lately has been dealing with oil spill cleanups, homeland security issues and the stationing of ice breakers in the Puget Sound.

“She’s not looking for a change in assignments,” spokeswoman Charla Neuman said. “She’ll probably just pick up seniority” on other committees.

Final committee assignments have to wait until a caucus meeting Tuesday, and Murray said there may be some surprises at that point.

In the House, Republicans will have to give up committee seats as they move into the minority. McMorris said she expects to stay on the House Armed Services Committee, even though the number of slots will shrink, because some of the Republican members on that panel lost their races. She’s not sure about her other two assignments – on the Resources and Education committees – but has hopes of landing a spot on the Ways and Means Committee, which handles tax policy and trade issues.

Her special assignment to head up a task force reviewing the National Environmental Policy Act will disappear, along with that panel. It was the brainchild of Rep. Richard Pombo, a California Republican who is chairman of the Resources Committee. He’ll be replaced by a Democrat who doesn’t share Pombo’s antipathy for the landmark environmental law.

“I think that’s over,” McMorris said of the special task force. To salvage anything from nearly 18 months of hearings and review, she’ll have to try to convince Democrats the goal was to improve the environmental impact statement process, not gut it.

Going from the majority to the minority isn’t a completely new experience for McMorris, either. When she was elected to the state Legislature in 1994, Republicans held a 24-seat edge. Two years later, the state House flipped back to Democratic control, and two years after that it went to a 49-49 split.

“When you’re in the majority, you’re in a better position to really lead on legislation,” she said. “In the minority, I’m depending more on going to a member of the majority party and asking them to take the lead on something I think is important.”

The Washington state House delegation will still be split between six Democrats and three Republicans. The big difference in 2007 will be that McMorris and other Republicans will go to Democrats, rather than Democrats coming to her.

“When there’s a balance of power, you’re forced to work together,” she said.

That balance will be tested in the coming weeks during a lame-duck session Congress needs to finish off issues it set aside for a campaign recess. McMorris said Republicans in the House seem divided between those who want to take advantage of the time they have left to pass parts of the GOP agenda and those who want to “pass appropriations and get out of town.”

Murray suspects the latter sentiment will prevail in the end, and Republicans will abandon any plans to push through legislation that can be overturned in a month.

A big item on the agenda for Washington members of both parties, in both houses, is an extension of the federal tax deduction for states that have a sales tax but no state income tax. Washington is one of eight states in that category, and the deduction expires this year if Congress doesn’t act. McMorris and Murray both said extending the deduction is at the top of their list for the remaining session of Congress.

All the remaining appropriations bills will likely be wrapped into a single “omnibus” spending package. Those are typically the bills that add other items that need to pass before a session ends and may be the way to get the sales tax deduction passed.

“It very well may be the best option we have,” McMorris said.


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