What's next for Congress

Technically speaking, the second session of the 110th Congress does not start until January 2008, but, in fact, it has already begun. By early next year, the presidential nominees for each major political party will be known, and the general election campaign will further stall any significant legislative activity. Nominees will become the new leaders and faces of their respective parties, and most expect Congress will defer to them. Plus, neither party will want to allow the other to claim a legislative victory in the race to the Nov. 4, 2008, election.

This will not bring about a big change in terms of substance because with only two laws passed of any consequence—the minimum-wage hike and ethics reform—this has not been a productive Congress. Most debates between the parties have stayed along party lines, and neither Democrats nor Republicans are expected to reach consensus. But adding a new twist will be President Bush's more frequent use of vetoes, particularly on spending bills.

None of the 12 annual appropriations bills had been sent to President Bush when Congress took its August recess, and there were only 19 legislative days to complete work on those bills before the federal government's fiscal year ended Sept. 30. This is not an unusual situation for Congress, and it typically hustles through temporary funding extensions (stopgap bills) until it can complete and send all 12 appropriations bills to the president, usually in a massive omnibus spending package.

However, this year promises to be more dramatic with possibly the first government shutdown since Republicans and former President Clinton squared off in 1995. This could happen because congressional Democrats added $22 billion to President Bush's appropriations requests, and Bush insists he will not accept the additional spending. And though Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) called the $22 billion a "relatively minor difference" and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) similarly called it a "very small difference," House Minority Whip Roy Blunt (R-Mo.) predicted a government shutdown, saying: "It is inevitable."