RAY SUAREZ: In most years, by mid-December, members of Congress have completed their work and headed home for the holidays. But this year, disputes on several key bills have kept them in town. Congressional leaders have warned that the workload may stretch into the weekend and maybe even into next week.
With me to explain what's keeping the Congress in session is Norman Ornstein, who watches Congress for the American Enterprise Institute. Norm, let's do it like a scorecard. There is a lot of outstanding business. Today the Patriot Act passed the House. What about the Senate?
NORMAN ORNSTEIN: It's deadlocked in the Senate. We have a core of people, liberals and conservatives, who don't like the fact that the compromise that was worked out would extend most of the provisions of the Patriot Act into permanent status and doesn't do enough to deal with civil liberties.
So they're threatening the possibility of a filibuster, or at least enough delay to keep this from taking place by the end of the year and they've offered as an alternative a three-month extension so that they can work out some of these differences.
But that may not happen, and what we have -- interestingly enough -- occurs frequently when you have these end-of-session moments -- is games of chicken. The chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, Jim Sensenbrenner, has said that he won't accept this, and he will let the whole thing expire, which happens at the end of the year, which would mean no Patriot Act for some time into the following year. So this is really hanging fire right now.
RAY SUAREZ: The defense appropriations bills have not been passed. Right now, in the Senate, it has the McCain amendment, which would more explicitly ban torture, attached to it. What's going on in the House?
NORMAN ORNSTEIN: We have two defense bills, Ray. There's an appropriations bill, which allocates the money directly, which is a more urgent issue, and an authorization bill, both of which are up, both of which have the McCain torture amendment attached to them. That passed, as you recall, in the Senate with 90 votes. The president doesn't like it.
What's happened there is, because this is a situation where McCain will not budge on this issue, and he's got the vast majority of senators with him, is that McCain has been negotiating with the administration, with the White House, to try and come up with something that's acceptable to both sides. They're not making great progress there.
What some people would like to do in the leadership is say let's just deal with this on the authorization side, pass the appropriations without it; that would let them basically defer the issue, push it off to the side. McCain is unwilling to do that. So we've got another situation, hanging fire.
RAY SUAREZ: But they can't go home for Christmas and New Year's without having the Defense Department funded, right?
NORMAN ORNSTEIN: They cannot go home without having the Defense Department funded. The backup is to have another continuing resolution, where you're simply continuing funding at the current year's levels.
But given the extraordinary expenses that we have in Iraq, that's not really an acceptable alternative, either, so they're almost certainly going to have to work this out, but getting it done in the next day or two seems very unlikely.
RAY SUAREZ: Also unresolved, the budget resolution and the tax bills.
NORMAN ORNSTEIN: What we have in the budget is, since the Budget Act of 1974, there's been a provision which hasn't been exercised every year called "reconciliation."
And the theory of it is after you have pass all the separate spending and tax bills, you may need to come together to reconcile the amounts and force action to make sure that you can fit within your budget.
RAY SUAREZ: And so everybody is voting on the same thing.
NORMAN ORNSTEIN: Everybody is voting on the same thing. And the kicker in this is that the reconciliation bill comes up under special rules with no filibusters in the Senate.
Now, the -- it gets into issues that have nothing to do with the budget per se. In this case, the hang-up is drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, which was a part of the original energy bill that the administration wanted for almost four years and couldn't get because of opposition in the Senate.
They took it out, passed an energy bill last year, and now we're trying to set it in through the back door of reconciliation and can make it work. They have 50 votes for it in the Senate.
Now they've got a problem with about 20 Republicans in the House who will not vote for drilling in ANWR, so reconciliation on the spending side is gridlock there.
What they're trying to do, the supporters of drilling in ANWR, are trying now to use funding for Katrina to lure over some Democrats and Republicans from Louisiana and Mississippi to perhaps get enough votes in the House to put it over. But those negotiations aren't going very well, either.
RAY SUAREZ: Temporary or stopgap spending agreements are not all that unusual. But is it unusual to get this late into the year with so many big agreements still not resolved?
NORMAN ORNSTEIN: This is an unusual year because we have major substantive issues along with serious spending and tax issues that haven't gone very far. You are absolutely right. It is not unusual to go well into the next year without getting some of the funding issues resolved. This is a much bigger set of issues.
They're trying to use a very narrow window to jam a lot of things through, and there are many other issues that people would like to bring up, some of which are piggybacked on to the spending bills, beyond the drilling in ANWR, including additional funding for Katrina, funding for the avian flu, which has just come up and the president wants an ambitious package there, pension reform, all of which are bidding for time to get on to an agenda with just a few days to go, and members of Congress hate to be here after the middle of December.
RAY SUAREZ: It was said after the 2004 elections that coming out of them with the White House and stronger and more secure majorities in the House and Senate, the Republicans would be able to work their will in Washington. Why is this happening?
NORMAN ORNSTEIN: You know, there was some level of optimism as they left for the August recess. They passed an energy bill, a stripped-down one, a bankruptcy bill, a class action lawsuit bill, and thought they could come back to an agenda of tax cuts, another issue that's a very important one hanging for them, that would be a favorable terrain for them.
Then came Katrina. Katrina, Iraq, and the fact this in a second term Republicans are heading towards a midterm that historically is bad for the president's party, has led to much less party unity and some drift.
Add to that leadership that's embattled because of scandal in both houses -- its majority leader in the House now removed, temporarily at least from office, under indictment -- the Senate majority leader having some questions raised and they're not able to get what they want.
At the same time, Democrats are more united than we've seen them during the four years of the Bush administration. So Republicans are finding they can't get the House and Senate Republicans to agree, and they sometimes can't get their own members within either House together, either.
RAY SUAREZ: Norman Ornstein, good to see you.
NORMAN ORNSTEIN: Thanks.