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Washington Week

September 12, 2010 - 6:00pm

Congress comes back to D.C. this week after its August recess, which was packed with overseas travel, some constituent meetings and lots of hours spent dialing for dollars.

The first two tasks are self-explanatory. The third might need a bit of "splaining. It goes like this:

Many senior members of Congress and leadership types are expected to spend a certain number of hours a week dialing the phone to ask their friends, wannabe friends and industry and labor leaders for campaign contributions. They talk about the agenda they have pushed or stopped on their behalf and assure them of more of the same, as long as the campaign donations continue to flow.

The speaker of the House was dialing for dollars over the recess, too, but her sway on the phone was a bit different. She was able to ask for donations in exchange for a possible House floor vote on a particular issue that might be helpful to the potential donor.Some have dubbed this exercise as focus-grouping. However, this focus group is the cre de la cre of focus groups, the likes of which not even Frank Luntz has ever seen. However, before the speaker and her Democratic leadership team are able to tee-up a message vote in exchange for the campaign dollars she collected, some real legislating needs to be done in September.

The 12 spending bills that together make up the entire budget for our federal government agencies to function expire Thursday, Sept. 30. None of the 12 bills has been passed through Congress, so this will take some time to package, negotiate and pass through.

Also, during this short September session, the Senate will likely ultimately pass the $30 billion small-business lending bill, dubbed by some GOP members of Congress as a mini TARP bill. This bill infuses $30 billion into the community banking industry for lending to small businesses. However, many believe the government strings attached to the money mirror that of the larger TARP (Troubled Asset Relief Program) bill that passed almost two years ago. This small-business lending bill, if passed through the Senate, will have to be ironed out between the House and the Senate.

Another bill that should get Senate floor attention is the Department of Defense authorization bill. This bill passed the House earlier this year. This prized authorization bill is one that has passed every Congress going back 30-plus years. Given that our armed forces are involved in wars in both Iraq and Afghanistan, this writer would find it unimaginable for Congress to fail to pass this bill before the November elections.

However, the bet is that once the appropriations bill(s) and the small-business lending bill get wrapped up, the speaker will take the time for the leadership to have message votes that will appease their base and political contributors. Hill watchers can expect to see a message vote on the middle-class tax cuts even though four Senate Democrats have gone public saying they want all of the so-called Bush tax cuts of 2001 and 2003 extended. Also, if you do some homework, you will find that other Senate Democrats supported those tax cuts when they passed in previous years. A few names that come to mind are Sens. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., Mary Landrieu, D-La. and Blanche Lincoln, D-Ark.

So, while the speaker of the House may only be planning on passing two pieces of legislation to be signed into law in September, you can bet that she will likely orchestrate a few message votes that will be the result of the "dialing for dollars" exercise that occurred during the recess. It will be interesting to see the results of the ultimate focus group, the American electorate. Stay tuned to see if the American electorate agrees with Nancy Pelosis focus group when the votes are tallied after the November elections.

Elizabeth B. Letchworth is a retired, four-times-elected United States Senate Secretary for the Majority and Minority. She is the founder of

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