Congress returns with new leaders, old troubles ahead

Sunday, January 5, 2003

WASHINGTON -- Old problems are likely to occupy the new Congress that convenes Tuesday with Republicans in control of the House and Senate.

Lawmakers are looking to finish work left over from last year -- the federal budget, extending unemployment benefits, confirming judges and helping the ailing economy.

Congress has completed only two of the 13 spending bills for government operations in the fiscal year that began Oct. 1. The government has operated under temporary spending measures, the last of which expires Jan. 11, as House Republicans and Senate Democrats failed to agree on spending levels.

Lawmakers are talking about further temporary extensions to fund the government through Jan. 31, House and Senate aides say.

"We'll get the work done that needs to be done," said Nick Smith, spokesman for incoming Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist, R-Tenn.

Two competing bills have languished: a $5 billion plan from the Democratic-controlled Senate that would have extended benefits by 13 weeks for people now receiving them or who were newly eligible, and a $900 million plan from the GOP-led House for five extra weeks for workers in a few states with high unemployment rates.

No Bush favorite

President Bush has not said which plan he favors. "When our legislators return to the Capitol, I ask them to make the extension of unemployment benefits a first order of business," Bush said last month after Congress adjourned for the year.

Plans to revive the economy are taking center stage, too.

Bush, who is outlining his ideas in a speech Tuesday in Chicago, is expected to offer tax cuts, billions of dollars in aid to states and extended jobless benefits, administration officials say. The proposal could reach $600 billion over a decade, they say.

House Democrats are announcing their proposal on Monday, and Senate Democratic leader Tom Daschle of South Dakota used his party's radio address Saturday to question Bush's priorities.

"I intend to do everything I can to replace this misguided plan with a proposal for immediate tax relief for middle class families tax relief that will actually spur economic growth," he said.

Senators returned home in December after confirming 100 judges nominated by President Bush, but they did not finish work on 30 other nominees for federal appeals and district courts. Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist, in his year-end report on federal courts, said a solution should be sought for "the underlying problems that have bogged down the nomination and confirmation process for so many years."

With the new legislative session comes new leaders.

Rep. Nancy Pelosi of California is the new House Democratic leader, replacing Missouri's Dick Gephardt, who left the job to pursue a possible run for the White House in 2004.

"My priority and that of the Democratic leadership, and indeed every member of Congress, certainly every Democrat, is the safety and soundness of the American people. The safety of our country, of course, and the soundness of our economy," Pelosi said Friday.

Frist succeeded Sen. Trent Lott, R-Miss., who stepped down after making racially insensitive remarks at a birthday party for retiring Sen. Strom Thurmond, R-S.C.

Frist and GOP colleagues say Congress must quickly address terrorism, the economy and prescription drug benefits. Frist also has indicated he will also focus on repairing the damage that Lott's comments may have done to GOP efforts to recruit support from minority voters.

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