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Congress returns from its summer recess this week with one overriding agenda: to pass a couple of national security bills, then get out of town and back to campaigning as fast as possible. With continued Republican control of the House very much in doubt, and a Democratic takeover of the Senate a distinct possibility, showing the nation that members of Congress care deeply about national security issues is not just a policy choice, it’s a political imperative. “Security, security, security,” explains Kathryn Lehman, the former chief of staff of the House Republican Conference, when asked what issues would be at the top of the congressional agenda. Lehman is now a partner at Holland & Knight. “There’s obviously politics involved, but with this stuff happening on August 10, it’s kind of crystallized everyone’s thinking,” notes a senior Republican Senate leadership aide, referring to the arrests last month of 24 people allegedly involved in a plot to blow up trans-Atlantic airliners. “We’re saying, �Let’s get extremely focused on the things that have to happen,’ ” adds the staffer. “ It’s politics and policy coming together.” Though leadership staffers in both chambers say a final agenda for September is still being worked out, congressional passage of both Homeland Security and Department of Defense appropriation bills before the fiscal year ends Sept. 30 is considered a near certainty.� “All of the defense subcommittee staff are bracing for 24/7 work to try to get this bill conferenced by the 29th or 1st of October,” notes Dennis Kedzior, a lobbyist for the PMA Group who spent 18 years as a House appropriations staffer.� There’s also a Department of Defense authorization bill, which sets procurement, personnel, and strategic policies for the DOD.� Those are the three things almost everybody agrees will be accomplished, even in a notoriously contentious Congress. Considered possible, but not nearly certain, is a legislative fix to the Supreme Court’s June 29 decision that nullified the legality of the military commissions set up to try some 450 alleged terrorists detained in Guant�namo Bay, Cuba. Also on the anti-terrorist track is a bill by Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Arlen Specter (R-Pa.) that would require the government to seek permission from the secret FISA court — created by the 1978 Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act — if it wanted to continue its controversial eavesdropping without a warrant, an activity Republicans now call “terrorist surveillance.” There’s also a massive $7.4 billion port-security bill the House passed in May and that the Senate may also consider. And the Senate also hopes to confirm U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations John Bolton, who was filibustered during his 2005 confirmation hearing but was recess-appointed by President George W. Bush later that summer. After that, however, all bets are off. “There are two to three really big-ticket, relevant things and two to three irrelevant things that they will bring up for political reasons,” notes the Federalist Group‘s John Green, a former staffer for ex-Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott (R-Miss.). Chief among the non-national security issues is the so-called trifecta legislation, a one-piece package that would simultaneously cut the estate tax, raise the minimum wage, and provide a host of narrowly focused tax breaks aimed at wooing specific Democratic senators. The trifecta passed the House in July, but in the Senate the measure failed to get the 60 votes needed to cut off debate. While Democrats wanted to raise the minimum wage, they chafed at tying it to a cut in the estate tax, which only benefits the wealthy. “I don’t think Democrats will vote for $300 billion in estate tax cuts,” says Patton Boggs‘ John Jonas. “That dog ain’t going to hunt,” he adds, referring to the trifecta. “It’s too cute.” There’s also the possibility that Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-Tenn.) will bring up Arizona Republican Sen. Jon Kyl’s bill to ban Internet gambling. The subject has been a pet issue for Kyl, who is under intense re-election pressure, for the past decade. A bill to ban Internet gambling passed the House in July by a 3-to-1 majority. Then there’s Senate Commerce Committee Chairman Ted Stevens (R-Alaska), who insists he’s going to pass a Senate version of a telecom bill the House passed in June. “It’s a daunting task — passing the bill before they go home and conferencing it during the lame-duck [session],” concedes Bertram Carp, a telecom lobbyist for Williams & Jensen. “And it would have to be slimmed down to reduce the number of objectors.” Carp adds that if anyone other than Stevens suggested such a move in the few weeks available in September, it would not be taken seriously. But he says that Stevens, who is also the second-ranking Republican on the Appropriations Committee and the longest-serving GOP senator, has often accomplished what appears to be impossible. Says Carp, “It won’t be dead until he says it’s dead.”
T.R. Goldman can be contacted at [email protected].

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