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Congress agenda complicated by election-year partisanship

Monday, January 19, 2004

WASHINGTON -- The election-year session of Congress picks up this week where the last one left off. Senate Republicans still are trying to break a Democratic filibuster and the two sides agree on little beyond the extent to which partisanship has made lawmaking difficult.

Legislators will have to put aside their differences long enough to deal with several inescapable issues when the second session of the 108th Congress opens Tuesday.

They include a highway spending bill that could create hundreds of thousands of jobs, pension plan relief for financially struggling companies and corporate tax changes needed to stave off billions of dollars in penalties from the European Union.

By the time lawmakers leave Washington in the fall for re-election campaigns, Congress also is supposed to have passed its annual spending bills for most of 2005. That will require some tough choices between spending demands, such as money for President Bush's goal of sending men back to the moon and a budget deficit going through the roof.

Expectations are typically low for an election year.

Bush, in good shape politically, "can afford to stress the vision thing" such as his space project while Democrats "will be catering to their base in taking positions and that may thwart progress" on high-profile issues, said Roger Davidson, visiting professor of political science at University of California, Santa Barbara.

Some issues may be too hot to handle this year.

Hot-button issues

Prospects are not good for Congress responding to Bush's immigrant worker proposal. The conservative drive for a constitutional amendment banning gay marriages is unlikely to make much headway.

Senate Democrats are also likely to harden their resistance to the president's more conservative judicial nominees after Bush's recess appointment of Mississippi federal judge Charles Pickering to an appeals court. Democrats had blocked the appointment for two years, questioning Pickering's civil rights record.

The session begins with Senate GOP leaders trying again to push through a $373 billion package of seven long-overdue spending bills for the 2004 budget year.

The House passed the measure last year, but Senate Democrats have resisted. They may not relent until they are satisfied on such side issues as country-of-origin labels on meat products, a subject in the spotlight since the discovery of mad cow disease in this country.

The first business for the House will be Bush's budget for 2005, which goes to Congress on Feb. 2, and a six-year highway and public transit spending bill.

No action was taken last year on that bill because of the deep divide between the House Transportation Committee, which wants to help pay for a $375 billion measure by raising gasoline taxes, and the White House, which is resisting any tax increases and is seeking only $247 billion.

The House and Senate also must agree on a bill to give short-term relief and long-term solutions for companies unable to afford their employee pension plans.

The Senate left a month ago within reach of an agreement limiting class-action lawsuits. That would be a major victory for Republicans who for years have tried with little success to rein in what they say are frivolous suits.

In the mix, too, are bills to cap medical malpractice lawsuits and to create a fund of more than $100 billion, financed by businesses and insurance companies, to pay asbestos victims.

Senate Democratic leader Tom Daschle said top Democratic priorities this year include raising the minimum wage, passing a mental health parity bill, getting a good higher education bill and rewriting the Medicare bill enacted last month.

But Robert Schmuhl, professor of American studies at Notre Dame, predicted this session of Congress "will be as politically driven, and controlled, as any in recent memory." Virtually nothing that is not to the advantage of the Republican majority will make it through, he said.

Last November the Senate came within two votes of ending a filibuster on an energy bill that was an administration priority. Ending the impasse could depend on whether House GOP leaders give ground on a provision, opposed in the Senate, that protects producers of the gasoline additive MTBE from product liability lawsuits.

Other major bills face long odds. The 1996 welfare law must be reauthorized, but Democrats oppose administration efforts to toughen work requirements.

With the shaky job market reducing the ranks of free-traders, it's uncertain whether the administration this year will risk bringing up a trade agreement it recently reached with Central American countries.

And with many states in financial straits, a bipartisan drive to put a permanent ban on Internet access taxes has many detractors.


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