A lot of problems await return of Congress

A blackout darkened the skies of the Northeast, more blood has been shed in Iraq and the government’s financial picture has become more grim in the four weeks Congress has been on vacation.

Back to work this week, lawmakers will pummel Bush administration officials with questions and assertions about each. But with the election season fast approaching, their attention also will be on public demands for a prescription drug benefit for seniors.

In addition, each party will be seeking votes on issues dear to their political bases: abortion and stalled judicial nominations in the case of Republicans; for Democrats, increases in the minimum wage and government payments to low-income families with children.

The Senate approved a national energy bill as one of its last acts before its departure, sending it to a House-Senate conference. Similar legislation has died there in the past, but the massive power blackout in the Northeast and record high gas prices could propel lawmakers toward a compromise.

House Energy and Commerce Committee Chairman Billy Tauzin, R-La., scheduled hearings on the blackout for when the House returns Wednesday and promised President Bush that a comprehensive energy bill will be ready by the end of September for final congressional action.

The “paralyzing blackouts should send a sobering signal to Congress that we simply cannot wait any longer to act,” Tauzin said.

Rep. Steny Hoyer, D-Md., said Democrats want to address the energy crisis and improve electricity reliability standards, but added that success depends on Republicans not insisting on “nonstarter” provisions such as oil drilling in Alaska’s Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.

“I’m not very optimistic that that is going to happen,” said Hoyer, who is his party’s second top leader in the House.

Democrats also are primed to question the cost of the operation in Iraq, both in terms of human lives and the nearly $1 billion a week in taxpayer money.

The Pentagon had said it has enough funds to last through this budget year, which ends Sept. 30, but the administration is now considering asking Congress for several billion dollars in emergency spending. If there’s a request, the House will take it up, said John Feehery, spokesman for House Speaker Dennis Hastert, R-Ill.

Congress must also grapple with spending for Iraq and other defense and homeland security needs as it works on the 13 appropriations bills it must pass to pay for federal programs in the 2004 budget year that begins Oct. 1.

The debate over spending comes after the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office last week predicted that the federal deficit will soar to a record $480 billion in 2004, in part a consequence of administration-backed tax cuts and increased defense spending. Just six months ago the CBO estimated the 2004 deficit at $200 billion.

House Majority Leader Tom DeLay, R-Texas, said the CBO report was a warning that Congress must restrain wasteful spending. “Even as some Democrats slander the president over the deficit, they have proposals for nearly $1 trillion in new government spending,” he said.

Democrats say the fault lies in Bush tax cuts which have left essential programs for education, veterans and transportation underfunded. The Senate this week takes up a $137 billion bill to fund labor, health and education programs, and a focus will be on Democratic efforts to add billions more for education.

Cost will also be an issue for some fiscal conservatives as House and Senate conferees try to reach a compromise on a $400 billion Medicare prescription drug benefit. “We obviously have some trouble on the right,” and must make clear that this is part of overall Medicare reform, Feehery said.

Hoyer said Democrats will not cooperate with any moves to turn Medicare functions over to private health care companies, which they say could result in many Americans losing medical coverage.

But a key negotiator, Sen. Edward Kennedy, D-Mass., believes it is crucial that a deal be reached this year. “It would be very difficult to do a prescription drug bill next year in an election year,” said Jim Manley, a spokesman for Kennedy.

House and Senate negotiators are likely to reach agreement soon on a bill banning a procedure that anti-abortion groups call “partial-birth abortion.” The Senate is expected to take up an “unborn victims” bill that for the first time at the federal level would recognize a fetus as a person with rights separate from the mother in the event of a violent attack.

With the president needing to show solidarity with social conservatives in the run-up to next year’s election, “the congressional leadership has apparently decided that September will be anti-choice month,” said Kate Michelman, president of NARAL Pro-Choice America.

Congress is also under pressure to pass a corporate tax cut bill that would eliminate a $5 billion-a-year export tax break that the World Trade Organization has ruled to be an illegal subsidy.The European Union can impose up to $4 billion in sanctions on American goods next year if the tax rules aren’t changed.

© 2003 The Associated Press