Proposed financial bailout puts all other legislation on back burner

McClatchy NewspapersSeptember 25, 2008 

WASHINGTON — The proposed $700 billion Wall Street bailout will rewrite -- and, in some cases, erase -- the California congressional agenda.

Money will become harder to find, for big projects like restoring the San Joaquin River. Political momentum may be harder to build. Old priorities could simply evaporate, as some already have this week.

"Any project that has a cost attached to it becomes more difficult," conceded Rep. Jim Costa, D-Fresno.

Costa is the chief House author of the San Joaquin River restoration bill. The legislation to revive the river's salmon population downstream of Friant Dam authorizes $250 million in federal funding. Long-term costs could grow even higher, some believe.

Under a lawsuit settlement, Congress was theoretically supposed to have approved the San Joaquin River legislation by Dec. 31, 2006.

Senate supporters have planned for many months to fold the San Joaquin River restoration bill into a much larger public lands package, the kind that has a little something for every lawmaker. The mega-package ultimately was slated to cover more than 140 separate bills, possibly spanning 1,000-plus pages.

But now, Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee spokesman Bill Wicker acknowledged Thursday, the prospects for the big public lands bill have become "real grim." Although he didn't rule out action following the November election, Wicker stressed the bill is a "long shot."

Several reasons contribute beyond the bailout, including the adamant objections of some conservative senators and the running out of time in the 110th Congress. But even when the 111th Congress convenes in January, lawmakers will find money harder to come by because of the financial bailout package. The bailout's final cost remains a moving target.

"The bailout bill is certainly likely to change the landscape for an awful lot of bills that will need funding," Wicker said.

Nor is money the only exhaustible Capitol Hill asset. Time, too, is a limited resource. With lawmakers and staffers attending back-to-back meetings with colleagues and serially telephoning bankers and community leaders back home, other priorities wither.

"We're doing nothing but this," said Rep. Devin Nunes, R-Visalia.

On Thursday, for instance, Nunes had planned to introduce legislation reforming congressional earmarks. Technically, the bill limiting the ability of House members to slip in targeted spending was ready. Tactically, though, the timing was all off.

"That was set aside, because I couldn't get people to pay attention to it," Nunes said.

Nunes further worried Thursday that the bailout and its fallout will complicate completion of a long-delayed Colombian free trade agreement before the Bush administration expires. Supporters stress the deal would boost California exports, as Colombia would immediately eliminate its tariffs on grapes, tree fruit and nuts.

The all-consuming bailout deprives Republicans of a chance to press home their energy agenda. Even though the GOP won this week when the House let a longstanding offshore oil drilling moratorium lapse, public attention had turned elsewhere. Politically, that could help Democrats like Rep. Jerry McNerney of Pleasanton, who Republicans have sought to impale on the energy production issue.

The single-minded congressional focus can also so distract lawmakers and members of the public that otherwise debatable measures can slide through untouched.

On Wednesday, for instance, the House overwhelmingly approved a multibillion-dollar bill that funds military, homeland security and veterans programs. Taxpayers for Common Sense identified 2,322 earmarks in the bill, which self-styled reformers have vainly tried to restrict.

Many of the putative earmarks were requested by President Bush. Others came strictly from lawmakers. For instance, Rep. Dennis Cardoza, D-Merced, successfully requested $500,000 for "pre-disaster mitigation" work in the city of Merced. This Federal Emergency Management Agency work isn't controversial by itself, but its inclusion underscored how the bailout has blown away the once-heated earmark debate.

"I understand that this all may seem a little trivial in a week that we may approve $700 billion," anti-earmark crusader Rep. Jeff Flake, R-Ariz., acknowledged on the House floor.

McClatchy Newspapers 2008

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