Congress races to resolve ‘nagging issues’

As Congress races to finish its work before Christmas, members this week will focus on resolving their differences on some of the most controversial issues debated this year _ from drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to the $50 billion budget-cutting package to a measure intended to create uniform standards for questioning suspected terrorists.

As senators join House members back in Washington Monday, among the top items on their agenda are the military budget and spending bills. The difficulty in negotiations in recent weeks has centered not on the more than $400 billion for military operations in 2006 but on the amendment attached to both bills sponsored by Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., barring the “cruel, inhumane and degrading” treatment of terrorism detainees. The White House fought the measure because officials say they do not condone torture and the law is unnecessary.

McCain’s provision, devised in response to the treatment of prisoners at Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq, also would standardize interrogation techniques in the Army Field Manual, which is a reference guide for soldiers. Earlier this year, White House officials threatened to veto any defense legislation with McCain’s measure even though it was supported by an overwhelming majority in the Senate, including Pennsylvania’s two senators.

House members who have tried to strip the measure out of the defense bills have faced strong opposition from Rep. John P. Murtha, D-Pa. He has said he will ensure that McCain’s amendment is attached to the must-pass defense spending bill by using his power as the top Democrat on the defense appropriations subcommittee to force a full House vote on the measure. He believes it will pass the House.

Congress also must pass a spending package to pay for discretionary programs in the departments of labor, health and education before the winter break. Because of budget constraints, funding for many programs is either the same as last year or increases by an amount that does not keep up with inflation.

In part because of concerns about programs such as Head Start, House members surprised leaders by defeating the $142.5 billion measure last month, with even some conservative Republicans voting against the measure.

Sen. Arlen Specter, R-Pa., chairman of the Labor, Health and Human Relations appropriations subcommittee in the Senate, said he grudgingly supported the House-Senate compromise even though he did not believe funding was sufficient for the National Institutes of Health, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention or Title I grants, which provide money to aid low-income students.

Specter noted that the funding for NIH falls well below the rate of inflation, meaning the legislation will not sustain the current level of grants to some doctors and medical researchers.

Republican leaders are also still hoping to negotiate a deal on controversial budget cuts that would be made over the next five years. The $50 billion House package passed with a two-vote margin last month must be reconciled with the Senate’s $35 billion in savings.

Republican leaders say the cuts are important to slow the growth of spending and bring down the deficit. But leaders acknowledge that reaching an agreement before Christmas will be difficult. There is increasing nervousness about the perception of the budget cuts _ which include cuts to programs for poor people such as food stamps, welfare, and Medicaid _ after the House passed $94.5 billion in tax relief last week.

The House measures included a popular temporary fix for families nipped by the Alternative Minimum Tax as well as a two-year extension of lower rates on dividends and capital gains advocated by President Bush to spur economic growth. But they will have to be meshed with the Senate’s very different package approved last month.

Budget-cutting negotiators are also still dealing with an impasse over drilling for oil in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. A group of moderate House Republicans vowed to defeat any budget-cutting measure that included the ANWR provision, and it was removed, but a number of powerful Western Republicans in both chambers have threatened to vote against a final budget-cutting package if it does not include the drilling measure.

There are other complicated differences in the House and Senate versions of the budget cuts that may take more time to resolve, particularly on Medicaid and Medicare.

The House cut nearly $12 billion from the Medicaid program. Some savings came from new penalties and restrictions on individuals who transfer assets so they can qualify for Medicaid coverage of their nursing home care; the Senate included a similar provision in its bill.

But other House changes include $10 billion in savings by allowing states to impose premiums on 2 million Medicaid recipients by 2015 and permitting states to collect fees from about 27 percent of Medicaid participants for items such as prescription drugs or emergency room visits that were not crises.