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Fate of Key Bills in Doubt as Congress Plans a Recess

Campaigning for Nov. 5 elections takes priority. Leaders of both parties say the legislative work has ended, at least until the lame-duck session.

October 17, 2002|Janet Hook | Times Staff Writer

WASHINGTON -- Congress on Wednesday stumbled toward a recess that could postpone -- and possibly kill -- a slew of major bills on issues ranging from homeland security to energy policy to health care.

With lawmakers planning to reconvene after the Nov. 5 elections for a lame-duck session, House leaders Wednesday night sent their members home for the final weeks of the fall campaign. Senate leaders are expected to follow suit, although they intend to keep the chamber in session at least into next week.

Leaders of both parties said that, with most major issues stymied in partisan impasse, the productive work of this Congress has effectively ended -- at least until the lame-duck session.

"It's a steep climb" to get anything more passed before the election, said Sen. Max Baucus (D-Mont.).

Two major bills were sent to the White House on Wednesday, when the Senate gave final approval to a measure to help states overhaul their voting systems and a $355.1-billion defense appropriation bill.

The defense bill increases the Pentagon's budget by $37.5 billion -- the biggest boost since the Cold War. It provides $7.4 billion to develop a national missile defense system, funds a 4.1% pay raise for the military and backs the Defense Department's cancellation of the $11-billion Crusader howitzer program.

But as the preelection break came into view, lawmakers engaged in a flurry of finger-pointing about which party is to blame for the big backlog of business they are leaving unfinished.

That includes President Bush's proposal -- unveiled in June -- to create a Department of Homeland Security. The bill once seemed politically unstoppable, but it now is mired in the Senate because of a dispute over civil service rights for workers in the new agency.

Senate leaders said they would continue to try to break the impasse in the coming days. But some lawmakers fear that pushing the bill into a lame-duck session jeopardizes its passage.

Other issues left hanging are bills that would revamp federal energy policy, create federal backup for insurance companies in the event of another terrorist attack and boost Medicare payments to doctors and hospitals.

Leaders of the Republican-controlled House insisted they would reconvene and return to work if, at any time before the elections, the Democratic-controlled Senate broke its impasse over homeland security or any other pending legislation.

"We're on 24 hours' notice," said House Ways and Means Chairman William M. Thomas (R-Bakersfield). "If the Senate moves, we're back."

But Democrats blamed House Republicans for the continuing stalemates on many issues.

"This Congress, at the direction of the Republican leadership of the House, is walking away from its responsibility to deal with virtually every domestic problem we have," said Rep. David R. Obey (D-Wis.).

The House cleared the way for leaving town by approving a bill, 228 to 172, that would keep the government financed through Nov. 22. The Senate approved the measure by voice vote.

The short-term funding is needed because Congress has approved only two of the 13 appropriation bills needed to finance the government in the current budget year, which began Oct. 1. Along with the defense bill, the other spending measure sent to Bush provides $10.5 billion for military construction projects.

Also Wednesday, the House derailed a planned vote on a bill to provide tax relief to people hurt by this year's stock market plunge. Some Republicans wanted to push the measure, even though it was destined to die in the Senate, to provide another show of GOP concern for voters suffering from the shaky economy.

But the bill ran into opposition from conservative Republicans, who opposed provisions that would have made it harder for companies and individuals to move overseas to escape U.S. taxes. And other Republicans said it made no sense to push a bill that had no chance of passing.

"It looks too contrived to do it three weeks before the election," said Rep. Sherwood L. Boehlert (R-N.Y.).


Times staff writer Nick Anderson contributed to this report.

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