Congress defers most of workload until next year

Congress pushed a pile of unfinished work into the new year, even after delivering a couple of presents to President Bush before leaving for the holidays.

With the halls of the Capitol virtually empty, lawmakers managed to send two final bills to the White House on Thursday. One bill rolled a massive defense spending bill together with $29 billion in aid for the hurricane-damaged Gulf Coast, $50 billion for action in Iraq and Afghanistan, and money to battle a potential bird flu outbreak.

A second measure kept key anti-terrorism powers, set to expire Dec. 31, in place until Feb. 3. It allows the FBI to continue to investigate terrorism cases using powers granted in 2001, include roving wiretaps and the authority to intercept wire, spoken and electronic communications relating to terrorism.

One of the most contentious of Congress’ unfinished items, a package shaving nearly $40 billion off future government spending, was left until next year for a final vote. Lawmakers also will need to tackle unfinished tax bills when they return.

The short-term extension of the USA Patriot Act means lawmakers must debate again in January the merits of government anti-terrorism powers that some critics fault for not protecting innocent Americans’ civil liberties. Bush and GOP leaders pushed hard for a permanent extension of the expiring provisions but could not overcome a Senate filibuster.

“The Patriot Act has helped us disrupt terrorist plots and break up cells here in the United States,” Bush said in a statement the White House released after he left for the Camp David presidential retreat for the holiday. “I will work closely with the House and Senate to make sure that we are not without this crucial law for even a day.”

Thursday’s action ended a congressional year complicated by standoffs with Democrats and disagreements among Republicans.

Bush and the GOP lost their campaign to open Alaska’s Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to oil drilling when drilling authority was stripped out of the defense spending bill. The change also eliminated roughly $2 billion in emergency aid for low-income families facing high heating bills this winter.

Three Senate Republicans secured a promise from GOP and Democratic leaders to enact $2 billion in emergency funding for heating assistance in January, after the Senate votes on Samuel Alito’s nomination to the Supreme Court.

Democrats registered their unhappiness with the tangled maneuvering that the GOP used to finally complete legislative work.

“This is a shameful and shabby way to end the worst session of Congress I’ve experienced in my 36 years in this House,” said Rep. David Obey, D-Wis.

The delay in dealing with the deficit-reduction package gives Democrats and other opponents more time to make political waves over the proposed curbs in federal entitlement programs like Medicare and Medicaid. House conservatives did win a 1 percent across-the-board cut in discretionary federal spending for fiscal 2006, producing savings of $8.5 billion. Veterans’ programs were exempted.

House and Senate GOP leaders spent much of the year garnering support for the politically tricky deficit-reduction bill, only to be thwarted at the last minute when Democrats succeeded in forcing an extra House vote.

House Republicans grumbled, and a spokesman for House Speaker Dennis Hastert, R-Ill., complained that Democrats “changed their mascot to Ebenezer Scrooge for the sake of political gamesmanship.”

In a letter to Hastert, Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi said Democrats couldn’t let the budget go without a fight. “Every single House Democrat opposed this immoral bill because of the harmful cuts in student loans, health care, child support enforcement and other assistance for seniors and low- and middle-income families,” she wrote in a letter to Hastert.

Alito’s pending Supreme Court nomination virtually guarantees the Senate will start 2006 with a bruising partisan battle. Democrats already have raised questions about his stances on abortion and civil rights.

Congress also left before getting time to reconcile differences over two pending tax bills. One extends tax cuts for capital gains and dividends for an extra two years, delaying its expiration from 2008 to 2010. The second prevents millions more taxpayers from falling victim to the alternative minimum tax, imposed to prevent wealthy taxpayers from avoiding taxation but an increasing burden on the middle class.


On the Net:



© 2005 The Associated Press