Congress makes progress on election-year issues

Sunday, July 28, 2002

WASHINGTON -- Eyes squarely on the fall election, Congress crammed as much as possible into its most productive work week of the year before rushing out to campaign for control of the House and Senate next year.

Lawmakers pushed through as many key election issues as possible as the House started its summer recess, with the Senate staying in session one more week. Then Congress will resume its work in September after Labor Day.

They dealt with business, economic and ethics issues that they hope will shore up consumer confidence in the economy and the stock market before the November elections.

The recess is the last uninterrupted campaign block before Congress wraps up for the year, so lawmakers wanted to make sure they had something to promote to voters during the break.

The election will determine control of both the Democrat-led Senate and the GOP majority House. Democrats hold the Senate by a single one seat; Republicans control the House by seven seats.

"I think that is my job, to go around and talk about some of the successes we have had in this Congress and try to make sure that we return a Republican majority back here in November," House Speaker Dennis Hastert, R-Ill., said before heading out on the road.

The White House prodded GOP leaders to soften their stances on several issues and resolve disputes with Democrats on some issues before the break.

Democrats have pounded Bush and his Capitol Hill allies for their handling of business scandals and accused them of ignoring the economy. It is a theme likely to dominate during the campaign season.

"The best thing they could do is completely scrap their entire economic plan and start over again from scratch ... and get rid of their entire economic team and start over with a brand new one that has some common sense," Al Gore, the 2000 Democratic nominee for president, said last week.

With both parties ready to deal, the House and Senate sent legislation to the president that creates stiff penalties for corporate fraud and document shredding.

Congress also passed a $28.9 billion counterterrorism package for the remainder of the budget year, through September. That ended a four-month fight with Bush over how much to spend to replenish Pentagon accounts and bolster security at home.

Democrats and Republicans alike held out for a more expensive bill. But with just two months left in the fiscal year, lawmakers felt pressure to accept Bush's demands for less and move on to a fresh pile of spending bills this fall.

"A lot has taken place here and I'm real proud of members of both parties," Bush said after a Friday visit to the Capitol.

Only a last-minute House revolt derailed an agreement with the Senate that would have made debts harder to dissolve in bankruptcy court. House leaders say they will try to pass the bill in September.

Amid the dealmaking, the House voted to expel Rep. James Traficant, D-Ohio, following his conviction for bribery, tax evasion and racketeering. It was only the second time since the Civil War that the House has forcibly ejected a sitting member.

The Senate reached a breakthrough on Bush's federal nominees. GOP Sen. John McCain of Arizona cleared the way for votes on the president's picks in exchange for recess appointment by the White House for a Federal Election Commission nominee. The Senate confirmed more than 30 nominees before the weekend.

"The most productive weeks of each year is the one right before the August recess and the one right before we go out at the end of the year," said Senate Republican leader Trent Lott, R-Miss.

This week, the Senate will try to finish up on Bush's proposed Homeland Security Department, a prescription drug benefit and presidential trade powers.

The House on Friday night sent the Senate the Homeland Security Department bill and the trade measure.

A scaled-back Medicare prescription drug proposal to help mostly low-income elderly or those who have spent a significant amount of money on medicine gained momentum in the Senate.

"By working together and by asking our colleagues to cooperate with us, I think we can produce an awful lot of good legislation" this week, Lott said.

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