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Congress Is Winding Down,
but Much Is Left Undone

CARL HULSE / New York Times 25sep2006

 

WASHINGTON, Sept. 24 — A Congress derided as do-nothing has a week to do something, and the prospects are cloudy.

Procrastination, power struggles and partisanship have left Congress with substantial work to finish before breaking for the elections. The fast-approaching recess and the Republican focus on national security legislation make it inevitable that much of the remainder will fall by the wayside.

At best, it appears that just 2 of the 11 required spending bills will pass, and not one has been approved so far, forcing a stopgap measure to keep the federal government open. No budget was enacted. A popular package of business and education tax credits is teetering. A lobbying overhaul, once a top priority in view of corruption scandals, is dead. The drive for broad immigration changes has derailed.

An offshore oil drilling bill painted as an answer to high gas prices is stalled. Plans to cut the estate tax and raise the minimum wage have floundered, and an important nuclear pact with India sought by the White House is not on track to clear Congress. New problems surfaced over the weekend for the annual military authorization bill. And numerous other initiatives await a planned lame-duck session in mid-November or a future Congress.

“It is disappointing where we are, and I think Republicans need to be upfront about this,” said Representative Jack Kingston, Republican of Georgia and a member of the House leadership. “We have not accomplished what we need to accomplish.”

Given the practical and political realities, Republicans have chosen to concentrate on legislation emphasizing their security credentials, like the bill governing interrogations and trials of terrorism detainees, a National Security Agency surveillance program, and spending on the Pentagon and the Department of Homeland Security. [See update]

“With obstruction from the Democrats at an all-time high, we have focused on four security issues in an effort to enact some solid, substantive accomplishments,” said Eric M. Ueland, chief of staff to Senator Bill Frist of Tennessee, the majority leader, who is stepping down at the end of this session.

While Republicans prefer to blame Democrats for the backlog, intramural fights and sharp differences between House and Senate Republicans have been chief impediments to major legislation. The recent fissures over terrorism detainees and how far to go in changing immigration law are just the latest and most public examples of serious policy differences among Republicans.

“I’ve seen some of that lately,” Mr. Frist said recently as he pondered whether Republican opposition would block a proposal for a 700-mile border fence — the chief piece of immigration-related legislation still standing after a broader measure fell victim to Republican disputes. Because of reservations from Democrats and Republicans who favor the broader bill, Mr. Frist is having trouble rounding up enough votes for a showdown over the fence this week.

Circumstances have changed in Washington from the days when Republicans were famous for party discipline. President Bush, weakened by his sliding popularity, has been unable to hold sway over Congress. The Republican leadership in the House and the Senate is in transition and lacks the muscle of Tom DeLay, the former House majority leader. Republican lawmakers, many facing their most serious electoral opposition in years, are fending for themselves.

“We have no central core of political authority driving things in Washington,” said James A. Thurber, director of the Center for Congressional and Presidential Studies at American University. “Individuals and expressions of individual will by committees, and also by strong people like John McCain, have dominated, and the result is internal fighting.”

Democrats have made no secret of their intention to try to brand this Congress as worse than lackluster. They said their case was made for them last week as the Senate, despite time running out, did next to nothing on the floor for three days in order to clear procedural obstacles to debating the fence legislation.

“When we say this is the most do-nothing Congress in the history of our country, this isn’t just flippant,” said Senator Harry Reid of Nevada, the Democratic leader. “This is true.” Besides denouncing the legislative output, Democrats are mounting an effort to chastise Republicans as failing to conduct sufficient oversight of the war in Iraq.

Republican leaders dispute the notion that this has been an unproductive session, pointing to legislation on bankruptcy, class action, highway spending, energy policy and pensions, as well as to two Supreme Court confirmations. And they say they already plan to be back on Nov. 13 to finish whatever remains at the end of the week.

“This session of Congress is not over,” Senator Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, the second-ranking Republican in the Senate, said Friday. “We are not finished with our work, and some of these issues are still in progress. What we are going to do Friday or Saturday is to take a timeout.”

Democrats have been happy throughout the year to stand almost united in both the House and the Senate against many of the Republican initiatives, forcing the majority to find enough votes to pass legislation from its own membership. That has often forced major concessions from the leadership. In other cases, Republicans in the House and the Senate have simply been unable to find common ground.

“In the 26 years I have been here,” said Representative Barney Frank, Democrat of Massachusetts, “I don’t think I have ever seen so much tension between the House and the Senate, and it is all among Republicans.”

The immigration measure was a notable example as House Republicans refused to entertain the bipartisan Senate bill that took a comprehensive approach to the flood of illegal immigrants. Earlier, a push for a formal budget plan collapsed because of irreconcilable differences over spending between House and Senate Republicans.

A House-Senate Republican feud over the handling of a pension measure, which ultimately passed, left a collection of tax breaks in limbo despite nearly unanimous support in Congress. Those tax benefits included a deduction for college tuition costs and a research and development tax credit for businesses. The leadership has been reluctant to bring the benefits to a vote independently because they could be used to help advance more contentious legislation, like the cut in the estate tax sought by Republicans.

A new struggle between rank-and-file Republicans and the leadership was threatening to engulf the must-pass spending measure for domestic security. Lawmakers were insisting that a provision allowing Americans to bring back cheaper prescription drugs from Canada be added to the bill even though House leaders and the pharmaceutical industry oppose the plan.

And on Sunday, a spokesman for Speaker J. Dennis Hastert of Illinois said that Mr. Hastert was insisting that provisions increasing security at the federal courts and allowing for the deportation of gang members be added to a pending Pentagon policy bill despite Senate objections.

“The speaker is not going to let the bill move until these critical security items get in,” said the spokesman, Ron Bonjean.

source: http://www.nytimes.com/2006/09/25/washington/25cong.html 3oct2006

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