After delay, Congress tries to finish up work on Friday

Friday, December 8th 2006, 6:09 am
By: News On 6

WASHINGTON (AP) _ Lawmakers hoped to bring the painfully divisive 109th Congress to a close Friday, but first they had to act on massive tax and trade legislation with provisions that left some angry and unhappy.

Before that showdown, though, the House took up an agreement to allow U.S. shipments of civilian nuclear fuel to India, an administration priority that is opposed by some because India, which has nuclear weapons, has not submitted to full international inspections.

House votes on the tax and trade package, which includes some $38 billion in tax breaks for businesses, higher education costs and schoolteachers, were delayed until Friday because of rebellions from both the House and Senate on the compromise reached by leaders from the two chambers. Votes had been scheduled Thursday evening.

The Senate was waiting to see what the House would do. If that is resolved, Congress would also act on a bill to keep federal programs funded through next February, concluding its work for the year.

With that the Republican control of Congress, lasting 12 years in the House, would be over, setting the stage for the 110th Congress to convene in January with Democrats in the majority in both the House and the Senate.

In one sign of the approaching Democratic rise to power, future House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., and incoming Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., succeeded in attaching to the funding bill language stopping a $3,300 raise members of Congress were to automatically receive on Jan. 1.

They said it was unconscionable that lawmakers get another raise when the federal minimum wage has been stuck at $5.15 an hour for the past 10 years.

As is often the case at the end of the session, congressional leaders tried to lump popular items _ extending the expired or expiring tax breaks _ with other more contentious measures.

The trade portion establishes permanent normal trade relations with Vietnam, which is generally supported, with the extension of trade benefits for sub-Saharan Africa, Haiti and Andean nations. The Haiti provisions in particular raised red flags with lawmakers trying to protect home state textile industries.

Attached to the tax measures are a move to block the administration from imposing a 5 percent cut in Medicare payments to doctors, at a cost estimated at $10 billion or more a year.

The search for ways to pay for this and other expensive programs raised other problems. Some lawmakers objected to a plan to ease budget shortfalls in a federal-state program providing health insurance coverage to low-income children. New Yorkers were angry when Republicans dropped tax incentives for a rail link from Manhattan to John F. Kennedy International Airport.

Under Senate rules, a single senator can force considerable delay once a bill comes over from the House.

Also included is a bill to expand federal contributions to an abandoned mine reclamation program, which could cost some $5 billion over 10 years.

The legislation also promotes energy independence by opening up some 8.3 million acres in the Gulf of Mexico to oil and gas drilling.

``This package could face obstacles to passage in the Senate, and I will be working with senators to find the smoothest path for the Senate to decide to take final action,'' said Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist, R-Tenn., who will relinquish his title and retire from the Senate when Congress adjourns.

The tax breaks, several which expired on Jan. 1, include a deduction of up to $4,000 for higher education costs, a 20 percent credit for new research and development activities, and a deduction of $250 for teachers who pay for school supplies with their own money.

The bill also extends through 2008 various energy provisions now set to expire at the end of 2007, including tax credits for electricity produced from renewable resources, and for new energy-efficient homes.

As another last act, Congress will vote to continue federal spending at fiscal 2006 levels through Feb. 15, a measure necessitated because lawmakers failed to pass any of the annual spending bills for the fiscal year 2007 beginning Oct. 1 except those dealing with defense and homeland security. That will shift the burden of completing the budgetary work to the new Democratic Congress.

``They are going to leave a mess as they go out,'' said Speaker-to-be Pelosi. ``It's been a do-nothing Congress, and as they go out the door, they are going to validate the decision of the American people that change was necessary.''

On Thursday, Congress:

_Confirmed cancer surgeon Andrew von Eschenbach to head the Food and Drug Administration.

_Passed legislation codifying administration policy of denying all but humanitarian aid to the ruling Hamas government in Palestine.

_Sent to the president a pipeline safety bill motivated by the suspension of oil production in Alaska last summer due to poorly maintained pipelines.

_Agreed to spend almost $1 billion over the next five years to study the causes of autism.