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Congress Gearing Up for a Legislative Sprint

Lawmakers fresh from a recess are expected to try salvaging the session by passing a flurry of bills ahead of the November election.

September 07, 2004|Richard Simon and Mary Curtius | Times Staff Writers

WASHINGTON — Congress returns from its August recess today vowing to rush through a bundle of important bills before the November election.

Measures to carry out recommendations from the Sept. 11 commission and to increase domestic security are on the agenda. So is legislation on transportation, energy, education, health and jobs programs and extending President Bush's tax cuts. There is also likely to be a huge omnibus spending bill laden with federal projects considered dear to the hearts of local voters.

After eight months of partisan gridlock, lawmakers say they are ready to make up for lost time.

Even though Republicans and Democrats feel pressure to show voters they can be productive, many concede it will be hard to accomplish in a brief election-eve session what could not be done previously.

Some analysts warn that legislating under such pressure may not yield good results -- especially in high-profile but complex areas such as anti-terrorism and intelligence reform.

"They're going to try to get more done in the next month than they've accomplished in the last year," said Keith Ashdown, vice president of policy for Taxpayers for Common Sense, a watchdog group.

"If it is a rush in the 11th hour of the legislative session to get a bill passed that's very important, it definitely leads to opportunities for bad legislation," he said.

That concern is particularly acute where domestic security and the Sept. 11 commission's reforms are concerned.

"The political pressures on homeland security are going to be huge, and everyone will have the need, at least, to be seen to be doing something," University of Pennsylvania political scientist Don Kettl said. The result could be action that "looks good in the short run and makes things worse in the long run."

"This is precisely the wrong time, given the political pressures, to try to solve the long-term problems," he said.

Some analysts say the session may end up being mostly politically charged window dressing, despite the importance of some of the pending bills.

The pace of legislative action is likely to quicken in the next several weeks, said Patrick Basham, a senior fellow at the Cato Institute, but "most of it will be carefully packaged, focus-group-tested, window-dressing stuff designed to appeal to swing voters in closely contested congressional races, such as they exist."

He predicted that the Republican leadership would bring bills to the floor "for the sole purpose of embarrassing or flushing out the Democrats on emotive or wedge issues. Between now and election day, the action on Capitol Hill will be more symbolic than substantive."

Already, House Republicans are planning to bring up the constitutional amendment to ban gay marriage, according to Stuart Roy, spokesman for House Majority Leader Tom DeLay (R-Texas). And one House Republican aide, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said the leadership planned to schedule a bill to keep the phrase "under God" in the Pledge of Allegiance.

If the coming session does not go beyond political gestures, the 108th Congress would have a slender record for the year. And polls show voters have noticed: A recent Gallup survey found that 42% of respondents approved of the way Congress was doing its job, while 52% disapproved.

Thus far, Congress has passed one of 13 spending bills -- to fund Pentagon programs -- for the 2005 fiscal year, which begins Oct. 1.

Bush has signed into law legislation toughening penalties for identity theft and making it a separate crime to harm a fetus during the commission of a violent federal crime. A number of trade agreements also have been approved.

So has legislation protecting turtles, a slew of bills renaming post offices and scores of other uncontroversial measures.

In the meantime, Congress has yet to pass the overall budget resolution for fiscal 2005, and few think it will do so now, relying instead on continuing resolutions to keep the government operating.

The Senate's record this year has been so bleak that Minority Leader Tom Daschle's office put out a news release in July calling it "The Seinfeld Senate: A Session About Nothing."

The House, where Republicans command a solid majority and the rules give the controlling party greater freedom, has approved more bills. But many of the measures had such a partisan cast that they had little chance of winning Senate approval.

The subjects most likely to get serious attention in coming weeks are domestic security and the reform recommendations of the bipartisan Sept. 11 commission.

The first order of business next week is expected to be funding domestic security programs. The House has approved a $32-billion bill; the Senate Appropriations Committee has recommended $32 billion, which must be approved by the Senate.

Differences between the two versions would have to be reconciled by House and Senate negotiators.

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