Checking in with Congress

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For months now the weekly Senate policy lunches have been a mess of hundreds of journalists packed into scrums and horded at top decibel by Capitol Police and the Secret Service trying to hack a path for visitors like the president, the vice president and Rahm Emanuel. That is, until this week. Yesterday, a few dozen journalists lounged on the various cushioned benches scattered outside the Senate floor, leisurely pacing after the Senators with whom they needed to speak. “I feel like a hamster on a wheel that just came to a grinding halt,” one reporter complained, pantomiming tumbling over the wheel. After more than two years of frenetic political news: could we finally have come to a lull?

Obama hit the ground running: so far he’s done the second half of TARP, SCHIP, Lilly Ledbetter, TARP2, the stimulus, his non-SOTU, his plan for Iraq, his first budget. Congress this week is eating its final smorgasbord before it starts its crash diet, otherwise known as final passage of the FY2009 omnibus. They’re also expected to finish the housing/bankruptcy bill and give us Inside-the-Beltwayers the vote. And then…. nada mucho, well, at least relative to the break neck pace we’ve seen so far.

Sure, they have the FY2010 budget process and hearings into this, that and maybe the other. By the end of Spring we’ll probably see a bill on the Risk Regulator and a budget resolution. After that the four remaining tracks of legislation – budget, healthcare, market reregulation and energy – will run like four trains out of the station. We’ll get lots of hearings and closed-door discussions (and lots of stories, surely, lamenting those closed door discussions). On Market rereg we’ll get a smattering of little bills that will last throughout the summer. Healthcare looks poised to go first by mid-summer, followed by energy in the fall and the 15 appropriations bills before the end of the year. I’m not saying that Congress won’t be busy — they obviously will have their hands full trying to pass the most ambitious first year agenda since FDR. I’m saying that we aren’t likely to see hundreds of reporters mob the Senate lunches for many months to come — probably not until final passage of healthcare. The daily news cycle is going to slow considerably as Congress chews over these massive issues in bite-size pieces.