Congress returns with full plate, dwindling funds
WASHINGTON (AP) – Time and money are running out as Congress returns this week from its summer holiday. Lawmakers have yet to figure out how best to educate the nation’s children, protect patients’ rights and meet future energy and defense needs.
Nearly certain is that this Congress, like past ones, will not finish all its spending bills before the new fiscal year begins Oct. 1. That would mean a series of temporary measures to keep the federal government running. Almost as certain is that the Oct. 5 target date for adjournment will slide by several weeks.
Projections of much smaller budget surpluses, thanks to a combination of President Bush’s tax cuts and a slower economy, will force both parties to choose between their legislative goals and their pledges to protect the Social Security trust fund.
As for Rep. Gary Condit, the House is being watched for how it might react to what party leaders have called a disappointing response from the California Democrat to the disappearance of former intern Chandra Levy. There has been some talk of removing Condit from the House Intelligence Committee.
The Senate returns Tuesday to take up the Export Administration Act, a delicate attempt to remove Cold War restrictions on high-tech exports without compromising national security.
The Senate Budget Committee meets to hear testimony on the new budget estimates, the first round in the battle over who is to blame for the shrinking surplus reported in August.
The House gets back Wednesday. Legislation to normalize trade relations with Vietnam tops its agenda. Other measures coming up soon would give the president authority to negotiate new trade agreements and let local phone companies sell high-speed Internet access nationwide.
On Thursday there will be a joint session to hear an address by Mexican President Vicente Fox.
Then both chambers must knuckle down on the 13 spending or appropriations bills that must be passed every year to run the federal government. So far the House has passed nine and the Senate five. They have not resolved differences on any of the bills so they can be sent to Bush.
Two of the largest bills, dealing with education and defense, have not been taken up. President Bush told the American Legion last week that both areas are priorities and he wants action soon. Congress should ”let go of some of the old ways of doing business in Washington,” he said.
Democrats have shown little willingness to cooperate. They blame the 10-year, $1.35 trillion tax cut passed earlier this year for putting Congress in a situation where it must either sacrifice important programs or use Social Security taxes to help pay for them.
House Democratic leader Dick Gephardt, D-Mo., said Bush should present a revised budget ”that acknowledges the fiscal crisis.” The president is highly unlikely to do that.
House Majority Leader Dick Armey, R-Texas, countered that the threat to surpluses lies with Democrats ”not interested in eliminating government waste or cutting oversized bureaucracies.”
Money also will be a central issue in other legislation. House and Senate negotiators made progress during the August break on bipartisan bills to improve the nation’s schools, but remain divided on how much to spend doing it.
Both parties say they are committed to approving a Medicare prescription drug benefit bill this year, but are divided, again, on how much money will be needed and how to pay for it.
Lawmakers also will vote in September on a bill to authorize defense programs, including the administration’s goals of modernizing the military and building a missile defense system.
The administration has budgeted more than $70 billion over 10 years to help the nation’s farmers, but dwindling federal dollars could affect the final figure in a farm aid bill coming up this fall.
”The stakes are raised significantly for anything that has spending attached,” said Anita Dunn, spokeswoman for Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle, D-S.D.
She said Daschle has told the administration that he will bring up an energy bill this year, following House passage just before the break of a bill to promote domestic energy production and conservation.
Awaiting the outcome of House-Senate conferences are bills to overhaul bankruptcy law and give patients new rights in managed care health programs. The outstanding issue there is the extent to which patients should be allowed to sue health care insurers.
House Democrats and their GOP allies also hope to force Republican leaders in the coming weeks to give them a vote on limiting campaign spending. Democrats, who control the Senate, are certain to push for a raise in the minimum wage. To get that they may have agree to some tax cuts for small businesses.
House Speaker Dennis Hastert is scheduled to meet with Bush this week on other tax issues. They include extending about $2 billion in business tax breaks that otherwise will expire at the end of the year, shielding middle-class families caught up in the complex alternative minimum tax and cutting capital gains taxes.
Lawmakers also face an Oct. 21 deadline to extend an existing moratorium preventing taxes on Internet access and taxes that single out the Internet.
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