Robert Novak

WASHINGTON -- When House members departed last weekend for summer vacation, they handed a painful choice to senators left behind in 100-degree Washington heat. The haughty Senate could either rubber-stamp two complicated bills passed by the House or face real-life consequences. When it took the former course, the Republican-controlled Congress again had abandoned conservative doctrine.

This abandonment bears the imprint of Rep. Bill Thomas, the domineering House Ways and Means Committee chairman, in his farewell congressional performance. He combined GOP-sought estate tax relief with the minimum wage increase long blocked by Republicans as job-killing wage fixing. In accepting this, Republican lawmakers cast doubt on what they really believe.

A lame-duck committee chairman overpowering Congress connotes weak leadership in both House and Senate and a president detached from legislative activity. As the summer break approached, Congress was going nowhere on immigration and lobbyist controls, and long ago gave up on Social Security and tax reform called for by President Bush. But non-passage of two bills would bring real-life consequences.

The first such bill dealt with private pension plans, now $450 billion in the hole. Missing a Sept. 13 deadline would mandate a federal bailout of two airlines, Northwest and Delta. The other measure is the "extenders bill," continuing some 40 expiring corporate tax breaks. Unless passed by the Sept. 15 tax deadline, many corporations must restate their earnings -- antagonizing executives as Republicans dun them for 2006 campaign contributions.

I first heard on July 12 that House Republicans were planning to merge minimum wage and estate tax legislation. Thomas last week combined them with the extenders bill. Arrogant, acerbic and authoritarian, the chairman was going out with a bravura performance (refusing to walk across the Capitol to meet with senators). Last week, senators cooled their heels for hours while waiting for Thomas and other House members to attend a meeting.

Sen. Charles Grassley, Thomas's counterpart as Senate Finance Committee chairman, was furious. He had planned to sweeten his pension bill with the popular extender measure. An enraged Grassley burst uninvited into a meeting of House Republican leaders. He and Thomas, long locked in mutual contempt, attacked each other face-to-face at a Thursday night meeting. But Grassley was undercut by Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist's support of Thomas's plan.

Robert Novak

Robert Novak (1931-2009) was a syndicated columnist and editor of the Evans-Novak Political Report.

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