Congress returns, facing contentious issues Issues: Budget, Iraq, security on agenda. - Brownsville Herald: Local News

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Congress returns, facing contentious issues Issues: Budget, Iraq, security on agenda.

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Posted: Tuesday, September 3, 2002 12:00 am

By JIM ABRAMS

The Associated Press

WASHINGTON Time and money are short and an election to determine who

controls Congress is straight ahead as lawmakers return from their summer

break to deal with Iraq, homeland security, the budget and a host of other

pressing issues.

Pension protections, election reforms and energy policy will also be on the

table when the Senate on Tuesday and the House on Wednesday regroup for the

final push of the 107th Congress.

The Democratic-controlled Senates first order of business is legislation

creating a homeland security department. Already approved by the House and

eagerly sought by the Bush administration, the bill faces tough debate in the

Senate.

Democrats are balking at President Bushs insistence on greater power to hire

and fire and a provision barring union membership for some of the 170,000

employees who would be assigned to that agency.

From there, the plan is to take up protections for worker pensions and 401(k)

plans, which Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle, D-S.D., says will complement

the new law cracking down on corporate wrongdoing.

That schedule could be disrupted if the Senate decides to take up a resolution

endorsing military action against Iraq.

Sen. John Warner of Virginia, the top Republican on the Armed Services

Committee, says he wants hearings on possible plans to attack Saddam Hussein.

Congress, as a co-equal branch of government, is, in my opinion, not going to

sit on the sidelines, he said.

President Bush says he will consult with Congress, but doesnt need

congressional approval to invade Iraq.

Meantime, Bush scheduled a meeting at the White House Tuesday with lawmakers

to discuss the homeland security bill, kicking off a week of sessions designed

to give momentum to his legislative agenda.

The House will concentrate on the 13 spending, or appropriations, bills that

Congress must pass to operate the government. With an Oct. 1 deadline for the

start of the new fiscal year, the House has passed five of those bills and the

Senate three. Not one has been sent to the president. Its nearly certain that

Congress, as it often does, will have to pass a stopgap funding measure to

keep federal programs running after Oct. 1.

Still, lawmakers wont do much legislating for a while after their return. On

Friday they travel to New York for a special session to honor victims of last

Septembers terror attacks.

Congressional leaders, meanwhile, will be under strong pressure to recess,

probably in mid-October, and return to finish their work after the Nov. 5

midterm election. Four of Daschles closest neighbors Senate Democrats Tim

Johnson of South Dakota, Paul Wellstone of Minnesota, Tom Harkin of Iowa and

Jean Carnahan of Missouri are in tight races that could determine whether

Democrats retain their one-seat majority.

In the 435-member House, Democrats need to pick up seven seats to end the

GOPs eight-year control.

In a recent radio address, Bush acknowledged that with an election

approaching, the tendency is to focus more on scoring political points than

on making progress. I hope the Congress will reject this approach.

But thats unlikely.

At the urging of Republican conservatives, the first spending bill to come up

could be one of the biggest and most difficult a measure to pay for

education and health programs. Following a gloomy Congressional Budget Office

report projecting budget deficits for at least another four years, Republicans

want to show that they, unlike Democrats, can hold the line on spending.

We fully expect the Senate to lard up every bill that comes down the pike,

said Pete Jeffries, spokesman for House Speaker Dennis Hastert, R-Ill.

The House leadership is readying more tax relief bills, including one to allow

families to claim deductions for kindergarten through grade 12 educational

expenses such as tuition, tutoring or purchasing computers.

Those tax cuts may be of value in some election campaigns, but they face a

bleak future in the Senate, where Daschle and other Democrats say Bush tax

cuts are a major reason for the governments stunning shift from budget

surpluses to deficits.

Among other pending issues:

Ken Johnson, a spokesman for House Energy and Commerce Committee Chairman

Billy Tauzin, R-La., said a knockdown, drag-out fight is expected over House

plans, opposed by the Senate, to open the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to

drilling.

The two chambers are close to agreeing on a long-stalled bill to make it

harder to escape credit card bills in bankruptcy court. But House

conservatives object to language preventing abortion protesters from using

bankruptcy claims to avoid fines.

A deal could be struck on legislation, growing out of the 2000 presidential

election controversy, to ensure fair and accurate elections.

Legislation to give the insurance industry federal protections when they

offer terrorism insurance is in position for passage.

The Senate, before leaving, failed to pass legislation providing a Medicare

prescription drug benefit to senior citizens. But there still could be action

to make generic drugs more accessible.

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