WASHINGTON -- Congress returns today to a backlog of major issues -- including U.S. policy toward Iraq, homeland security and the federal budget -- a pile of unfinished business so vast that many lawmakers are resigned to holding a lame-duck session after the November elections.
The crushing workload has twin sources: partisan tensions that have slowed basic budget decisions, and bipartisan determination to tackle such time-consuming initiatives as creating a vast new department of homeland security.
What's more, Congress immediately will be drawn into an escalating debate over whether to go to war with Iraq -- an issue that has been catapulted to new prominence during the month Congress has been on summer recess.
Many crucial decisions might be put off until after Election Day because congressional leaders are eager to send vulnerable incumbents home to campaign in races that could determine which party controls the House and the Senate next year.
Even if final decisions are deferred, debate in Congress over the coming weeks will influence which of two sets of issues are foremost in voters' minds when they go to the polls Nov. 5: concerns about the economy and corporate scandals, which Democrats want to spotlight, or anxieties about terrorism and national security, which play to Republican strengths.
And the decisions left facing lawmakers this session have consequences that will be felt far into the future. The homeland security agency could give the president broad new powers for years to come. The emerging budget, with its big increases for defense and homeland safety, will affect how long the government will run a deficit. And any decision to go to war with Iraq will require a huge financial, military and political commitment.
Although the legislative legacy of this session includes accomplishments -- a new law cracking down on corporate corruption, for one, and major anti-terrorism initiatives -- some incumbents facing re-election worry that it will reflect badly on them if Congress does not finish its work before the elections.
Lame-duck sessions are historically rare, but becoming less so. There have been six post-election sessions since 1971, three of them since 1994. The last one was in 2000, when Congress finished budget work under a cloud of uncertainty about who won the presidential election. Before that, the House met after the 1998 election to vote on President Clinton's impeachment.
The shadow of Sept. 11
When the Senate reconvenes today, and the House returns Wednesday, it will be for a session opening deep in the shadow of the first anniversary of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. Members of Congress will travel to New York City Friday for a special session to commemorate the tragedy that leveled the World Trade Center.
The first issue before the Senate is legislation to create the new homeland security department. The bill has been approved by the House, but the Senate version has been slowed by Democrats, led by Sen. Robert C. Byrd of West Virginia, who object to rushing action on such a significant change in government.
Central to the debate is the Democrats' refusal to exempt agency workers from civil rights protections, as President Bush has proposed. He has threatened a veto over the issue, saying the administration needs more flexibility to manage the security agency.
"I refuse to accept a bill which ties my hands or the hands of future presidents," Bush said. But Sen. Joseph I. Lieberman, D-Conn., has accused the administration of "dragging this common cause into the quicksand of controversy" in order to seize more power for the executive branch.
Congressional debate on Iraq will occur in the House International Relations Committee, where Chairman Henry J. Hyde, R-Ill., is lining up administration witnesses for September hearings. Other committees are expected to weigh in with hearings, but it is not clear when -- and in what form -- Congress will bring the issue of what to do about Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein to a vote.
The Senate's Democratic leaders plan to bring up legislation to increase protections for people who participate in 401(k) retirement plans -- to avoid some of the troubles caused by this year's collapse of the Enron Corp.