A long list of unfinished business

U.S. lawmakers returning from a weeklong break on Monday will take up a long list of unfinished — and possibly insurmountable — tasks that could help decide whether voters will re-elect them in November.

Action or inaction on a series of contentious issues including immigration, pensions, energy and federal spending will determine whether this Congress sheds the impression that it has made few legislative achievements.

“I’m not sure what this Congress has accomplished,” said Dick Armey, the former House Republican leader who is now with FreedomWorks, which advocates lower taxes and less government.

The business of passing legislation may not get any easier as both Republicans and Democrats in the U.S. Senate and House of Representatives stake out positions they hope will help them win control of Congress in the November midterm elections.

“Historically this is certainly not a Congress that will be remembered,” said Larry Sabato, of the University of Virginia’s Center for Politics. “There is just not much there.”

One of the toughest issues is immigration reform, a top domestic priority for President George W. Bush. Passions run high on the issue and it is unclear whether the Senate and the House will bridge the gap between vastly different bills.

The House passed a Republican-written tough border security and enforcement bill that further criminalizes illegal presence in the country. That bill drew protests from Hispanic groups. The Senate passed a bipartisan bill that combines border security and enforcement with a path to citizenship for many of the estimated 12 million illegal immigrants in the country.

Bush, mindful of the growing political clout of the Hispanic community, wants a bill along the lines of the Senate approach. But deep divisions among lawmakers stalled other Bush proposals including a plan to revamp the nation’s Social Security retirement system.

Other tough issues lawmakers face include:

— Stem cell research. Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist, a Tennessee Republican, announced plans to consider bipartisan legislation that would expand federal funding of embryonic stem cell research. It is opposed by anti-abortion groups and Bush has threatened to veto it.

— Pension plans. House and Senate negotiators have been trying to strike a deal to shore up employer-sponsored pensions plans for 44 million Americans in older industries such as automobiles, airlines and steel.

— Energy. Despite high gasoline prices upsetting voters, prospects are uncertain for two bills providing incentives to build new refineries and opening new areas for offshore crude oil and natural gas drilling.

In addition, a number of lawmakers are rushing to write bills to give Bush authority for a special system to try terrorism suspects being held at Guantanamo prison in Cuba. The push for legislation follows a U.S. Supreme Court ruling saying the military tribunal system set up by the Bush administration violated the Geneva Convention and U.S. military rules.

And hanging over Congress is the one issue it must handle this year — funding the federal government.

When the Senate returns on Monday, it will take up a spending bill totaling nearly $32 billion that includes money for border patrols, the embattled Federal Emergency Management Agency, dirty-bomb detection and other domestic security activities.

It is one of 11 spending bills Congress hopes to complete before October 1, when the new fiscal year begins. There is little agreement, even among members of each party, about how much to spend and how much to cut.

(Additional reporting by Richard Cowan)

© 2006 Reuters