Lots of Work Ahead for a Conflicted Congress

Stalled in confirmation fights and torn by ethics battles, Congress returns to work Tuesday on a full plate of significant legislation, including energy policy and highway construction, as leaders promise an end to the stalemate of recent weeks.

Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist, R-Tenn., is predicting the summer months will mark a period of achievement for the majority Republicans. But GOP leaders are under pressure to act quickly if they are to carry bragging rights into an election year in which the prevailing party traditionally loses seats.

“Voters are dissatisfied by Congress and fed up by the partisan bickering,” said Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah.

Despite the fact that Republicans control the White House and both chambers on Capitol Hill, there’s little legislation so far to distinguish this congress.

“President Bush needs to get tough, maybe even a little mean, with Congress if it is to accomplish much,” said Steve Hess, a congressional analyst with the Brookings Institution. “Time’s running out. There’s an awful lot of discontent, a feeling that Congress is identified with inaction and scandal.”

Political analysts say Republicans could be the victims of their overselling at the launch of this session of Congress. Initially, Republican leaders promised to overhaul Social Security, but that has staggered under the weight of the president’s initiative to divert payroll taxes into private accounts.

Then the new administration and Congress promised to put some steam behind a booming economy. But the jury is still out on whether her things are getting better, and every time millions of Americans go to the gasoline pump, they’re hit by meters tabbing at more than $2 a gallon.

“We’re going very fast into the election cycle that will pick the Congress for the final two years of the president’s term,” said Hess. “Americans know that Republicans have been in charge. Democrats are getting better in showing their opposition. Republicans know they have to change this around in a hurry.”

Democrats are promoting the idea that the Republican government has been ineffective.

“We’ve accomplished so little of what we were sent here for, and time is running out,” said Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev. “This whole legislative year, we have yet to spend a single minute debating health care, debating education, debating the environment, debating that things that people in America feel important.”

Republicans counter that the slow pace on Capitol Hill is the fault of Senate Democrats.

House Republican Conference Chairman Deborah Pryce, R-Ohio, said that the House GOP pushed through legislation “with momentum and promise only to see it sputter and stall in the Senate.”

Even with partisan crossfire, the two months between the Memorial Day recess and the start of the August summer recess leave an opening for a record that Congress can present to the voters. The Senate’s first priority this week will be to debate and vote on Bush’s nomination of several judges, starting with Janice Rogers Brown of California to serve on the District of Columbia Circuit Court of Appeals, and of John Bolton as U.S. ambassador to the United Nations.

The judges, and even the controversial Bolton, could be confirmed by the weekend, especially with many senators trying to preserve a truce on judicial nominees and the filibuster under a deal cut last month.

While the nominations and enactment of long-delayed energy policy and highway building legislation will be the nuts and bolts of the summer, many are focusing on what might happen on other hot button topics. Among them:

_President Bush’s proposal to overhaul Social Security through a new system of voluntary private accounts appears to be stuck, with House Ways and Means Committee Chairman Bill Thomas, R-Calif., trying for a rescue with a big package that includes major changes in tax policy to encourage saving.

_ The possible nomination of a Supreme Court chief justice to succeed the ailing William Rehnquist. While the chief has not announced retirement plans, the expectation is for a vacancy to be filled by the time the high court opens its new session in October.

_ An avalanche of ethics battles in the House, starting with a probe into Majority Leader Tom DeLay, R-Texas. The focus may well start on DeLay’s foreign travel and other perks paid for by private interests. But the aggressive finger-pointing will likely reveal a widespread pattern with the potential to drag in other key lawmakers, Republicans and Democrats alike.

_ A proposal to expand trade in the hemisphere through a Central American Free Trade Agreement. With Democrats pretty solidly against this and Republicans in swing districts worried about the next election, CAFTA could fade away despite Bush’s pressure to approve it.

_ Extension of wire-tapping and other investigatory authority granted the FBI after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks in 2001. Large chunks of that authority will expire unless renewed by this Congress, but that meets opposition from a coalition that ranges across the political spectrum.

_ Expansion of federal support for embryonic stem cell research that supporters contend could offer treatment and cures for Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s and other diseases, and opponents condemn as the destruction of human life. The House has passed this legislation. The Senate could act within the next two months. “We’ll get it passed, maybe even with enough votes to override a veto,” Hatch said.