Congress delays action on touchy political issues

Thursday, September 30, 2004

WASHINGTON -- Congress' Republican leaders are postponing politically thorny votes on overtime, imported prescription drugs and other issues until after the November elections.

GOP leaders say they are not motivated by a desire to sidestep difficult showdowns on disputes, some of which have pitted Republicans against each other or drawn veto threats from President Bush. With the House and Senate aiming to adjourn Oct. 8 for the presidential and congressional campaigns, they say they are simply running out of time.

"You're creating a story that ain't there," said House Majority Leader Tom DeLay, R-Texas.

Democrats say the GOP wants to avoid election-season votes on delicate issues like raising the federal debt limit, lifting trade restrictions with Cuba, and financing veterans' health care.

"They don't want to vote on them, they want to duck them," said Rep. David Obey, D-Wis.

Whatever the motivation, the political impact is significant.

Republicans will avoid difficult pre-election votes -- or embarrassing fights with the White House -- over issues as diverse as overtime pay, highway spending and Bush's plans to give civil service jobs to private contractors.

Democrats were hoping for a pre-election debate on increasing the government's borrowing ceiling so they could use it to highlight the record budget deficits of recent years.

But it appears that although the current $7.4 trillion debt limit is about to be breached, the Treasury Department will be able to use accounting maneuvers to keep paying government liabilities. Congress probably won't address that issue until mid-November, say GOP aides.

Many of the disputes are embedded in the spending bills Congress was supposed to complete by this Friday, when the government's new budget year begins.

Only one of the 13 bills -- the one financing the Pentagon -- has become law, though four or five others might be completed before lawmakers leave to campaign. Those include measures financing the Homeland Security Department and providing at least the additional $10.2 billion Bush wants to help Florida and other states recover from four recent hurricanes.

To keep federal agencies functioning, the House voted 389-32 Wednesday to keep the government open until Nov. 20 at current spending levels. The Senate passed the measure by voice vote.

House Appropriations Committee Chairman Bill Young, R-Fla., said he hoped a House-Senate compromise on the remaining spending measures would be ready for lawmakers to approve when they return to the Capitol in mid-November.

The bills probably will be lumped together into a giant package exceeding $300 billion. That could produce a measure so popular leaders could discard many controversial items, possibly including language that would block new Bush administration rules that it says will modernize overtime regulations.

Critics say the rules will deny time-and-a-half bonus pay to millions of workers. Ignoring a veto threat, the Senate Appropriations Committees and the full House voted to block the overtime rules, with Democrats joined by moderate Republicans from states with a strong labor presence.

Also sidestepped will be spending bill disputes over provisions:

--Blocking restrictions on trade and travel to Cuba, which the full House and the Senate Appropriations Committee have approved. Some farm-state Republicans have joined Democrats in trying to lift those restrictions. Current curbs are favored by many Cubans living in electorally crucial Florida.

--Permitting the import of lower-cost prescription drugs from Canada. Some border-state Republicans have joined Democrats in opposing Bush administration restrictions on the imports.

--Providing $30.3 billion for veterans health care next year, approved by the House Appropriations Committee. Veterans groups say the amount is too low.

--Claiming billions of dollars in savings by the Senate Appropriations Committee. House conservatives say those savings -- like claiming $2 billion in veterans and space spending to be emergencies -- are designed to bust the budget and should be killed.

Separately, the House prepared to vote on a six-month extension of the current welfare law, which was expiring Thursday. That would give Republicans more time to resolve a dispute over their plan to increase the number of hours welfare recipients must work.

In addition, House Transportation Committee Chairman Don Young, R-Alaska, said Wednesday he will propose extending the current highway program for eight months. That would give Republicans more time to agree on how to distribute $299 billion from a six-year highway bill they are writing.

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