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Elections loom over action in Congress

Congress is slated to return from recess Sept. 7, but with a targeted adjournment date of Oct. 1, “that leaves very few legislative days to get a huge amount of work done,” says John Maguire of the National Cotton Council's Washington office.

Given that timetable and pressures attendant to the national elections, the likelihood is that not a lot of bills will see completion, he told members of the Cotton Foundation and the American Cotton Producers Association at their joint meeting at Albuquerque, N.M.

Action — or inaction — will have an impact on agriculture, he says.

“People in the oilseeds and corn sector are very interested in the fuels provision of the energy legislation. The transportation bill, involving roads, bridges, and infrastructure is very important to the nation, and for the jobs involved.”

Miscellaneous tariffs legislation, which would waive tariffs on critical components imported into the United States, “has been tied up for a couple of years,” Maguire says. Among its many provisions are some related to textiles and one that's “very important” to the ELS cotton sector.

“Also, some of our friends in the crop protection sector have components they'd like to import, and failure to pass this bill is costing them millions of dollars.”

The Foreign Sales Corporation/Extra Territorial Income legislation “has very significant benefits for manufacturing, and we've been working with the textile sector to see if we can get some assistance to them through this bill,” Maguire says. It also includes provisions for the tobacco buyout, so the future of that may be tied to the FSC/ETI legislation.

Other issues awaiting action, he says, are tax breaks for the middle class, which will expire at the end of this year (“The debate is whether to extend them for a short time or to make them permanent.”) and immigration reform (“If you asked me to guess if we'll get immigration reform this year, I'd have to say, ‘Probably not.’”).

The forthcoming national elections, Maguire says, will affect congressional agendas, committee structures, and policy issues.

With the present Republican majority in the House and the races in play, he says “it is fairly unlikely” Democrats can retake control. “They'd have to pick up 11 seats, and with redistricting in Texas probably going to result in five additional Republican seats, Republicans have a potential 26-seat majority.”

If Republicans continue to hold a House majority, “I wouldn't anticipate many changes in leadership,” Maguire says. Rep. Dennis Hastert of Illinois would continue as speaker; Rep. Tom Delay of Texas as majority leader; Rep. Bob Goodlatte of Virginia would chair the Agriculture Committee; Rep. Bill Young of Florida would chair appropriations; Henry Bonilla of Texas the Agriculture Appropriations Subcommittee; and Rep. Mike Thompson of California, Ways and Means.

The outlook is a bit more complex for the Senate, now composed of 51 Republicans, 48 Democrats, and one Independent who caucuses with the Democrats. Up for re-election are 15 Republicans, 19 Democrats.

“As I try privately to assess the way things are going, I quite frequently come up with a 50-50 split. You can also make the case that Republicans will pick up two seats or that Democrats will gain two. With so many toss-ups right now, it's difficult to predict.”

With a 50-50 Senate, the party that wins the White House determines who would cast tie-breaker votes, either Vice President Dick Cheney or Vice President John Edwards.

“It would really get interesting with a Kerry/Edwards win,” Maguire says. “Sen. Kerry would have to resign from the Senate, leaving 50 Republicans and 49 Democrats. The governor of Massachusetts is Republican and the legislature there has passed binding legislation to prohibit the governor from appointing a replacement for Mr. Kerry if he becomes president.”

A special election would be held in April to name Kerry's successor.

“We could theoretically see, with a Kerry administration, a Senate that would be 50 Republicans and 49 Democrats until April — which would mean President Kerry would be trying to get his cabinet nominees confirmed by a Republican-controlled Senate.”

There is an agreement between Sen. Trent Lott, R-Miss., and Sen. Tom Daschle, D-S.D., that in such a situation the two parties would share funding for the committees and split committee memberships 50-50. “The Senate would have to agree to put that resolution in place, and there's some question as to how it might work.

“But as closely divided as this country is politically, it's not unfathomable to imagine a situation in which the Senate goes from Republican to Democrat to Republican within the next year.”

With a Republican majority, Sen. Bill Frist of Tennessee would remain as leader. One key change would occur, however, with Sen. Ted Stevens of Alaska, who is term-limited as chairman of the Appropriations Committee.

“Sen. Thad Cochran of Mississippi is the next most senior member,” Maguire notes, “so he would leave the chairmanship of the Agriculture Committee and move to Appropriations. Sen. Pat Roberts of Kansas would be next in line to take over the Agriculture Committee.”

With a Democrat majority in the Senate, Daschle (if he wins re-election) would become leader; Sen. Tom Harkin of Iowa likely would become chairman of the Agriculture Committee again; Sen. Robert Byrd of West Virginia would head the Appropriations Committee; and Sen. Max Baucus of Montana would chair the Finance Committee.

In the race for president, Maguire says, “I think 40 percent of voters probably have decided for the Republicans and 40 percent for the Democrats, with 10 percent undecided. The key will be undecided voters in the swing states. At this point, I think it's too close to even begin to try to call.

“All the national polls are very interesting, but this isn't a national election — it's 50 state elections for president being held the same day. It doesn't really matter at this point what the overall national polls say; it's very important what happens in the individual states.”


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