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Congress takes up Vietnam trade, abortion as it moves toward adjournment

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WASHINGTON (AP) _ In the final hours of Republican rule, the Senate put forward an all-purpose bill covering everything from normalized trade with Vietnam and tax breaks for millions of taxpayers to an expansion of offshore oil drilling.

The House, while preparing its own tax and trade agenda, was giving conservatives perhaps their last chance for a while to vote on an abortion bill.

Senate Finance Committee leaders said they were bringing to the floor as early as Wednesday the session-ending package that renewed expired or expiring tax breaks for businesses and middle income individuals and trade items affecting economic relations with Vietnam, Haiti, Africa and Andean nations.

The tax portion, said Finance Committee Chairman Charles Grassley, R-Iowa, gives ``continued tax relief to families paying college, teachers buying classroom supplies and producers of clean energy from sources such as wind.''

The package would also open up 8 million acres off the Gulf of Mexico to oil and gas drilling, postpone a planned cut in Medicare reimbursements to physicians and extend an abandoned coal mine reclamation program.

The House also turned to the Vietnam trade bill, although a vote might be put off until Thursday as lawmakers pondered whether to combine it with the tax break measure. Completing those bills could be the last major task before this Congress adjourns at the week's end, making way for the new Democratic-controlled Congress to convene on Jan. 4.

It remained uncertain whether the House and Senate can come together on a package that would not be so laden with expensive programs that it becomes unpassable.

The fix on Medicare payments is estimated to cost more than $10 billion over a one-year period. The abandoned mine bill could cost $5 billion over 10 years.

Among the tax breaks, a research and development deduction extension through 2006 and 2007 would cost $16.5 billion. Extending tuition deductions through the end of 2007 would cost $3.3 billion. Another provision allowing taxpayers in states without income taxes to deduct state and local sales taxes would cost $5.5 billion.

House Ways and Means Committee Chairman Bill Thomas, R-Calif., said they were working to keep Medicare payments within budgetary limits. ``It will be revenue neutral if you squint.''

House GOP leaders, in a parting gesture to their conservative base, brought up a bill that would require abortion providers to inform a woman 20 weeks into her pregnancy that an abortion would cause pain to the fetus.

The legislation has almost no chance of advancing in the Senate, while the new Democratic Congress is expected to have little appetite for abortion-related bills.

The Senate on Wednesday approved a measure to renew the $2.1 billion-a-year Ryan White CARE Act for prevention and treatment of AIDS. The bill still needs House consideration.

On the to-do list before Congress departs is approval of legislation to continue paying for most federal programs, at last year's budget levels, through Feb. 15. The legislation is necessary because this Congress was unable to pass any of the annual spending bills for the current budget year, which started Oct. 1, except for the Defense and Homeland Security departments.

This funding bill also passes off to the new Democratic majority the tough questions of how to meet spending demands for health and education programs while tackling the budget deficit.

The Vietnam bill would end Cold War-era requirements of annual reviews of trade with the communist nation. The House rejected the bill before the Nov. 7 election when the measure came up through an expedited procedure requiring a two-thirds majority.

The bill needs a simple majority of the 435-member House to pass this time, but textile state lawmakers may oppose it. They already oppose existing programs that let Haiti and some African countries export apparel to the U.S., while getting some materials from China and elsewhere.

The House, trying to finish up on Thursday, rushed through some three dozen mostly noncontroversial bills, including measures to honor two well-known men who recently died _ economist Milton Friedman and journalist Ed Bradley _ and the late baseball star Satchel Paige.

In other action:

_The House approved $289 million over five years for states to train volunteers and provide services to the estimated 50 million families caring at home for adults and children with special needs. The sponsor, Rep. Mike Ferguson, R-N.J., said his father spent six years caring for his ailing wife, and Ferguson wants to help families in similar situations. The Senate is expected to approve the bill.

_The House passed a Senate bill that requires the Health and Human Services secretary to develop and put in place a plan for autism research.

_The House was considering a renewal of a pipeline safety law, with tougher penalties for energy companies that fail to follow construction rules and, in response to shoddy maintenance that led to disruptions in Alaska oil lines last summer, new federal standards for low-pressure oil pipelines.

_The House passed legislation to improve tsunami detection and preparedness in the United States and abroad.
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