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The Nation

Workload Is Backing Up in Congress

Politics: Facing a pile of unfinished business and worried about tight races in November, lawmakers are talking of a lame-duck gathering.

September 03, 2002|JANET HOOK | TIMES STAFF WRITER

WASHINGTON — Congress returns today to a backlog of major issues--including U.S. policy toward Iraq, homeland security and the federal budget--a pile of unfinished business so vast that many lawmakers are resigned to holding a lame-duck session after the November elections.

The crushing workload has twin sources: partisan tensions that have slowed basic budget decisions, and bipartisan determination to tackle such time-consuming initiatives as creating a vast new Department of Homeland Security.

What's more, Congress immediately will be drawn into an escalating debate about whether to go to war with Iraq--an issue that has been catapulted to new prominence during the month Congress has been on summer recess.

Campaigns Come First

Many crucial decisions may be put off until after election day because congressional leaders are eager to send vulnerable incumbents home to campaign in races that could determine which party controls the House and the Senate next year.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Thursday September 19, 2002 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 15 inches; 569 words Type of Material: Correction
Government workers--A story Sept. 3 in Section A about battles in Congress over changes in some government agencies incorrectly referred to concerns about the workers' "civil rights" protections. It should have said "civil service" protections.

Even if final decisions are deferred, debate in Congress over the coming weeks will influence which of two sets of issues are foremost in voters' minds when they go to the polls Nov. 5: concerns about the economy and corporate scandals--which Democrats want to spotlight--or anxieties about terrorism and national security, which play to Republican strengths.

And the decisions left facing lawmakers this session have consequences that will be felt far into the future. The homeland security agency could give the president broad new powers for years to come.

The emerging budget, with its big increases for defense and homeland safety, will affect how long the government will run a deficit. And any decision to go to war with Iraq will require a huge financial, military and political commitment.

Although the legislative legacy of this session includes accomplishments--a new law cracking down on corporate corruption, for one, and major anti-terrorism initiatives--some incumbents facing reelection worry that it will reflect badly on them if Congress does not finish its work before the elections.

"It will add to the perception that we can't get our work done," said Rep. Shelley Moore Capito (R-W.Va.), who is in a tough fight for reelection.

Sessions More Common

Lame-duck sessions are historically rare, but becoming less so. There have been six postelection sessions since 1971, three of them since 1994. The last one was in 2000, when Congress finished budget work under a cloud of uncertainty about who won the presidential election. Before that, the House met after the 1998 election to vote on President Clinton's impeachment.

When the Senate reconvenes today, and the House returns Wednesday, it will be for a session opening deep in the shadow of the first anniversary of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. Members of Congress will travel Friday to New York City for a special session to commemorate the tragedy that leveled the twin towers.

The first issue before the Senate is legislation to create the new Homeland Security Department. The bill has been approved by the House, but the Senate version has been slowed by Democrats, led by Sen. Robert C. Byrd of West Virginia, who object to rushing action on such a significant change in government.

Central to the debate is the Democrats' refusal to exempt agency workers from civil rights protections, as President Bush has proposed.

He has threatened a veto on the issue, saying the administration needs more flexibility to manage the security agency.

"I refuse to accept a bill which ties my hands or the hands of future presidents," Bush said. But Sen. Joseph I. Lieberman (D-Conn.) has accused the administration of "dragging this common cause into the quicksand of controversy" in order to seize more power for the executive branch.

Congressional debate concerning Iraq will be spotlighted in the House International Relations Committee, where chairman Henry J. Hyde (R-Ill.) is lining up administration witnesses for hearings this month. Other committees are expected to weigh in with hearings, but it is not clear when--and in what form--Congress will bring the issue of what to do about Iraqi President Saddam Hussein to a vote. Some lawmakers say they hope it is not anytime soon, because their constituents do not seem prepared for a U.S. attack on Iraq.

"My calls are overwhelmingly negative," said Rep. Jane Harman (D-Venice). "People are baffled."

Democrats will be trying to ensure that the focus on national security issues does not eclipse concerns about the economy and corporate accounting scandals--which they made the topic of their Labor Day weekend radio address.

"Our economic prosperity has disappeared on the Republicans' watch," said Rep. Martin Frost (D-Texas). "We must pull together to get our economy back on the right track."

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