Honing the fine art of doing nothing

As Congress began its final week before the midterm elections, a veteran Senate chairman was asked the question ricocheting all over town:

Will Congress finish its work before lawmakers leave?

"No, just leave," Sen. Arlen Specter, R-Pa., said with a grin.

Not facing re-election this year, the Senate Judiciary Committee chairman could afford such candor. But the Republican incumbents reapplying for their jobs in the House and Senate will have some explaining to do on the campaign trail.

They cannot blame all the unfinished business on Democrats. Not with one of their own in the White House. Or with 11 years of uninterrupted GOP control of the House. Or with the Senate, for all but two of those years, run by Republicans.

Republicans set the House and Senate schedule. A typical work week begins after lunch Tuesday and ends by midday Thursday, prompting Specter to suggest, half-jokingly, that Congress expand its work week by 50 percent, to three days.

The Republican majority chose to end the congressional session to give lawmakers five weeks to campaign before the Nov. 7 elections.

Among the unfinished business are nine of 11 bills need to fund government into the new budget year that begins Sunday. Also left from the to-do list was legislation to govern President Bush’s program for wiretapping the U.S.-overseas phone calls and e-mails of suspected terrorists without court warrants, and improving health care for some 24 million veterans.

The GOP could proclaim victories in giving Bush the authority to detain, interrogate and try terrorism detainees before military tribunals instead of civilian courts. They also voted a 2.2 percent pay raise for the military and devoted more money to keeping illegal immigrants out of the country and deporting those already here.

Many of the biggest legislative failures were GOP priorities that toppled when Republicans split into factions. One involved whether to divert some Social Security taxes into private retirement accounts.

In the end, the "political capital" Bush boasted in the giddy aftermath of the 2004 elections appeared pretty much spent before lawmakers left Saturday.

None of the major overhauls Bush announced in his 2005 State of the Union address succeeded — Social Security, medical malpractice, tax laws.

A comprehensive overhaul of immigration law to include a guest worker program stalled amid voter unrest over illegal immigrants.

The lobbying and ethics overhaul promised in the wake of influence-peddling scandals that brought down House Majority Leader Tom DeLay of Texas and two other senior Republicans vanished in bickering over whether billionaires should be allowed to finance campaign ads.

Republicans missed an opportunity to score election-year points on some pocketbook issues.

Congress did not, for example, renew tax breaks that expired at the end of last year, including deductions for tuition, teachers’ classroom expenses and state and local sales taxes. The effort failed when Republicans tried to package it with inheritance tax cuts for the heirs of multimillionaires and a minimum wage increase.

Also not renewed was a research and development credit for businesses. Rare agreement by Democrats and a large minority of Republicans to fund new embryonic stem cell research, which holds out the hope of cures ford debilitating diseases, fell victim to Bush’s first and only veto in his nearly six years in the White House.

Perennial Republican legislative favorites such as abortion restriction and constitutional bans on gay marriage and flag desecration fell to defeat in largely party-line votes.

Only a few hours before adjourning, Republicans salvaged what they could from the ruins of the immigration fight. By 80-19, the Senate approved a bill to build a 700-mile fence along the Mexican border and produced a bill Bush could sign into law before Election Day.

Democrats were already having fun with that one. Read a campaign T-shirt:

"My senator went to Washington and all I got was this lousy 700-mile fence."

Copyright © 2006 The Associated Press