Congress wraps up work with much rancor, much left to do

Tuesday, October 12th 2004, 6:11 am
By: News On 6

WASHINGTON (AP) _ The 108th Congress soon will be history, a tumultuous two years that, depending on party affiliation, was the best of times or the worst of times.

Of course Republicans, who control both the House and the Senate, expressed pride in a Congress that passed a major Medicare prescription drug bill, gave President Bush the money he needed for Iraq and substantially increased spending for defense and homeland security.

``It's been a Congress of big ideas, and it's been a Congress of big reform,'' said Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist, R-Tenn.

Democrats saw the session in a different light, blaming Republicans for failing to pass important highway spending and welfare overhaul bills; dealing inadequately with the nation's health insurance problems and security needs; and passing tax cuts that contributed to record-high budget deficits.

Both sides deplored the partisanship that has impeded compromise and grown progressively spiteful this year in the run-up to the Nov. 2 elections.

``From day one, Republicans have wasted and squandered the 108th Congress,'' said House Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi of California. She accused the GOP of being ``fiscally irresponsible and ethically unfit.'' The latter phrase was aimed at Tom DeLay, R-Texas, the fiercely partisan House majority leader who has been admonished twice in recent weeks by the House ethics committee for his political activities.

Across the Capitol, Sen. Rick Santorum, R-Pa., criticized Senate Democratic leader Tom Daschle of South Dakota, a favorite GOP target. Opposition by Democratic senators that blocked several of the Bush administration's judicial nominations has particularly rankled Republicans.

``Tom Daschle used procedural measures that had never been used in the history of the Senate to stop bipartisan reforms from happening,'' Santorum said.

Daschle said it's ``ludicrous that the Republican majority is blaming others for their failure. They control the White House, the Senate and the House.''

Some of the biggest accomplishments occurred in 2003, when Congress passed the Medicare bill and a $15 billion bill for global AIDS relief, funded war and reconstruction in Iraq and approved a ban, now held up in the courts, on an abortion procedure that critics call partial-birth abortion.

This year, with the elections overshadowing the lawmaking process, both the expectations and the results were more modest.

House Democratic Whip Steny Hoyer of Maryland noted that as of Friday, the day before the House adjourned, it had met on only 102 days in 2004, the lowest in decades. He noted it compared to 110 days in 1948, the year that President Truman won re-election by running against the ``do-nothing Congress.''

Democrats said that even while in session, Congress has spent its time on such tasks as naming 92 post offices and passing 34 resolutions honoring athletic teams.

Still, some solid achievements have emerged this year:

_Congress passed legislation, sought by social conservatives, making it a double crime to injure a pregnant woman and her fetus;

_It sent to the president a $5.6 billion bill for developing and stockpiling antidotes for chemical and germ attacks.

_It approved a pensions relief package that could save employers some $80 billion, and it passed a $146 billion package to extend three popular middle-class tax breaks.

After a rare weekend session, the Senate joined the House on Monday in approving sweeping legislation to provide $136 billion in tax breaks for corporations. It also endorsed $14.6 billion in aid for hurricane victims in Florida and neighboring states and for drought-hit farmers in the Plains states.

Because controversy surrounds some of the provisions, the White House has kept a low profile during the legislation's move toward passage. It has signaled, nevertheless, that Bush will sign it.

The House and Senate may have to come back in late October to finish work on an overhaul of the intelligence community in line with recommendations of the Sept. 11 commission. Lawmakers also are expected back in mid-November to vote on a huge spending package for the fiscal year that began on Oct. 1.

Every year, Congress must pass 13 spending bills for federal operations, but only four had been enacted into law as the lawmakers quit Monday for the elections. Democrats want more money for health, security and education programs while fiscal conservatives have balked at worsening the federal deficit, expected to surpass $400 billion this year. Just three years earlier, the government enjoyed a $127 billion surplus.

Among other major issues left for the next Congress:

_A six-year, $300 billion bill to fund highway and mass transit programs.

_Extension of the 1996 welfare overhaul law.

_Legislation to make the nation more energy independent.

_Bills that would limit class-action lawsuits and medical liability claims.

_Bills on asbestos compensation, patients rights and changes in the immigration and bankruptcy laws.

Democrats made little headway again this year on their priorities: raising minimum wage, allowing people to order prescription drugs abroad, classifying attacks on gays as hate crimes, giving mental health patients parity in insurance with other patients.

Both the House and the Senate fell short of the two-thirds majority needed to advance a top Republican priority, a constitutional amendment banning gay marriage.