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Beset by poor approval ratings and internal differences, congressional Democrats hope to give themselves a triumphant send-off when Congress departs on a monthlong summer vacation.
“They can’t possibly do all the things they want to do,” counters Rep. John Boehner, the House Republican leader.
But Democratic leaders, seven months in power, have set an ambitious agenda for themselves for the next 10 days, even momentarily dispatching their efforts to end the Iraq war to the background.
They intend to send President Bush bills to counter terrorism and tighten congressional ethics, measures that were among the party’s half-dozen top priorities when Congress convened in January.
The House and Senate are scheduled to vote on legislation expanding the health care program for low-income children — a signature issue for the new majority — and raise tobacco taxes to finance it.
After more than a decade out of power, House leaders intend to place their stamp on farm programs. And begin the dismantling of a Republican-enacted alternative to traditional Medicare that provides billions in federal subsidies to insurance companies. Additionally, some Democrats still harbor hope of passing of an energy measure.
“Republicans on both sides of the Capitol are in a mode of delay. I think they fear we will pass our agenda, which the American people supports,” said Rep. Steny Hoyer of Maryland, the House majority leader.
“Obviously, we do have some internal divisions,” he conceded, adding, “Sometimes you have to get right up to the point of decision making before they’re resolved, but we think we’ll do that.”
Even if they succeed, it’s not clear congressional approval ratings will improve much. Just 24 percent approved of Congress’ job performance in the latest Associated Press-Ipsos poll, and other surveys suggest much of the dissatisfaction is the result of Congress’ inability to force an end to the war.
Those efforts will resume in earnest in the fall.
On the farm bill, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi intervened in recent days to add $4 billion in funding for nutrition programs. The move was designed to appeal to urban liberals in her caucus after they complained that the bill had largely failed to rein in payments to wealthy farmers in a time of high commodity prices.
Ironically, Pelosi’s earlier talk of imposing even greater changes in the farm programs brought protests from rural state Democrats, many of them first-termers from swing districts.
To pay for the additional funds, Democrats came up with a tax increase aimed at domestic subsidiaries of foreign corporations. Democrats said it was nothing the Bush administration hadn’t embraced years ago, but it brought howls of protests from Republicans.
“We feel very betrayed by that,” said Virginia Rep. Bob Goodlatte, the top Republican on the Agriculture Committee.
And that, in turn, sent Democrats scurrying for additional changes. The solution — another $800 million for international food as well as an undetermined amount to settle racial discrimination claims black farmers lodged several years ago against the Agriculture Department.
The low-income children’s health measure has strong support within both parties in the Senate. “Americans overwhelmingly support getting kids covered,” said Sen. Max Baucus, D-Mont., as he guided the bill through the Senate Finance Committee. Supporters said the $35 billion measure would allow 6.6 million people to maintain their current health coverage, and provide protection for another 3.2 million uninsured children. It is financed by a 61 cent-per-pack increase in the cigarette tax.
Bush has a veto threat pending against the bill, which he has said would expand government-run health care.
But given the popularity of the measure, his allies in the Senate have a modest objective. They hope to show enough strength to sustain his threatened veto.
In the House, Democrats drafted a companion measure that underscores a dramatic ideological divide between the parties on health care. Like the Senate bill, it expands health coverage for the low-income.
In addition, it cuts $157 billion over the next decade from federal subsidies to HMOs that provide private coverage under Medicare, and repeals other provisions that Republicans enacted to give seniors an alternative to traditional Medicare.
“We think if this passes and becomes law, Medicare Advantage over much of the country will not continue,” said Rep. Jim McCrery, R-La., the senior Republican on the Ways and Means Committee.
Republicans adopted a strategy of delay on the measure. And there was talk of trying to win approval of an amendment that defined a fetus as a living person — a tactic designed to embarrass Democrats, if not thwart passage of the overall bill.
Elsewhere, Republicans picked their spots.
They claimed credit when Democrats jettisoned two provisions from the compromise anti-terrorism measure, including one conferring new labor rights on security workers. The legislation would enact many of the remaining recommendations from the 9/11 commission.
Nor does the GOP seem eager to block enactment of an ethics bill that requires greater disclosure of fundraising by lobbyists and mandates that senators divulge their own attempts to gain federal funding for pet projects.
David Espo is AP’s chief congressional correspondent.