Congress returns – to messy in-box

Amount of unfinished business is vast, and elections may make compromise difficult.

The 107th Congress returns Tuesday to the toughest issues of an already tumultuous legislative session – at a time when many are doubting that Capitol Hill counts.

The big jump in approval ratings that lawmakers picked up after 9/11 is gone. So, nearly, is the budget surplus that not long ago stood at an estimated $5.6 trillion for the next 10 years.

And on multiple fronts – from a possible war with Iraq to the shape of a new Department of Homeland Defense – the White House is claiming a mandate to act with little more than a congressional nod of approval.

"The president has decided that we are irrelevant," says one top Democratic Senate aide.

"Irrelevant" is surely an overstatement. But on several key measures, President Bush appears to hold the edge against a Democratic Senate. Other big bills will likely get tied up in election-year politicking. And lawmakers in both parties appear certain to end an era of fiscal discipline – by failing to extend provisions that tamed budget deficits in the 1990s.

Already, partisan bickering in recent months has created a staggering mass of unfinished business.

No appropriation bills have yet cleared the Congress. And the gap between Capitol Hill and the White House on how much to spend for those bills yawned into a chasm over the August recess.

The top priority when the Senate returns Tuesday will be homeland security, including a historic meeting of the Congress in New York Sept. 6 to honor that city's sacrifice on 9/11.

Some lawmakers had set Sept. 11 as a symbolic goal for completing work on a new Department of Homeland Security. The House approved a plan close to that proposed by the administration in July. But the Senate is objecting to the curbs on civil service protections and bargaining rights that Mr. Bush says are necessary if the new department is to be effective.

In the end, time is on the president's side, analysts say.

"No one wants to be accused of stopping something the president has declared essential to internal national security," says Larry Sabato, a political scientist at the University of Virginia.

Having a say on Iraq

A similar face-off is shaping up over the administration's Iraq policy. After White House lawyers advised that Bush need not consult with congressional leaders on a war with Iraq, members of both sides of the aisle, including senior Republicans, lined up to say that it would be wise if he did. These include House majority leader Dick Armey (R) of Texas and John Warner of Virginia, the ranking Republican on the Senate Armed Services Committee.

Until recently, the White House has been reluctant to have top administration officials testify before Congress on policy toward Iraq. Now, it appears likely that administration officials will testify before several panels.

"The president believes that Congress has an important role to play," says Sean McCormack, a spokesman for the National Security Council. But he adds that "regime change" in Iraq is and has been US national policy.

Few lawmakers are eager to contest the president directly on the need for regime change. "We're not talking about whether the White House has a military exit strategy, but whether there is a plan to ensure that a post-Saddam Iraq doesn't descend into chaos," says Lynn Weil, a spokeswoman for the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, which is expected to hold hearings on Iraq.

Of all potential clashes between Congress and the White House, the most unavoidable is over government spending. In most budget cycles, it's defense spending that proves the last and most difficult bill to pass. But since the attacks of 9/11, Congress has let the White House take the lead in defining what new spending is required for the national defense. Now it's nondefense spending that is prompting most of the fireworks.

Bush urges spending cuts

Bush has been calling for deeper cuts in spending as the key to reviving the economy. At the same time, lawmakers in both parties are demanding increases in spending on issues ranging from education to the drought that is parching Midwest fields to powder. Some of these heartland states could decide control of the Congress in elections this fall.

"No one in Congress wants to cut spending in an election year," says Stanley Collender, a budget analyst at Fleishman-Hillard.

Still, as the session winds to a close, months and in some cases years of work on issues like energy policy, election reform, prescription drugs, and a patients bill of rights threaten to stay sidelined due to partisan disputes.

One exception is the issue of corporate responsibility, which in the wake of financial scandals continues to fire congressional interest. Having already passed major accounting reforms, the Senate plans to take up pension reform, a version of which passed the House last April. Lawmakers in both houses plan further measures to police Wall Street.

Budget endgame

The only legislation required by law to clear the Congress this session are appropriations bills. For much of the 1990s, congressional budget rules set up after the Watergate era helped restrain deficits. These rules, including the requirement of budget offsets for spending above budgeted levels, are set to expire on Oct. 1.

If such rules are not renewed before Oct. 1, plans for a prescription-drug benefit in Medicare, for example, could be brought to the floor of the Senate with no plan for billions in budget offsets. If Democrats take this tack, Senate Republicans say they will introduce more tax cuts.

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