The dessert melted, but the laws live on

The 107th Congress didn't appear headed for the history books when it convened, but terrorist attacks intervened.

The tributes at Sen. Robert Byrd's birthday party last week were well under way when the big silver bowl of ice cream cones arrived ... and began to melt. By the time the talk was over - just about an hour later - the cones were adrift in a pool of vanilla soup.

It's not a bad metaphor for the end of the 107th Congress: pride in what was accomplished - and the promise of more - but talk ran out the clock.

"This was a historic congress, and in the sweep of American history there aren't that many," says political scientist Larry Sabato.

It's a Congress that survived a possible terrorist attack on Sept. 11 and an anthrax attack that shut down the offices of half the Senate for three months. It managed two changes of party control in the Senate and operated under one of the closest partisan divisions in both houses ever. It began preparing the nation for war abroad and, for the first time since the Civil War, possible attacks on civilian targets at home.

Yet as the last gavel thumped on Friday, the incompletes of this historic Congress threaten to eclipse its achievements: No Social Security or Medicare reform. No patient's bill of rights. No help for seniors on prescription drugs. No energy bill, despite getting close to a deal on many key and complex provisions.

This Congress also punted the power of the purse - its most important constitutional responsibility. For the first time since a new budget process was launched in 1976, Congress failed to pass a budget resolution. When lawmakers adjourned, they had cleared only two of 13 of the spending bills for the 2003 fiscal year, now nearly two months along.

That means that even the bills that did make it through, such as a new Department of Homeland Security, won't get the funding they need after until the 108th Congress convenes in January.

Still, it's a far cry from what the experts expected when the most narrowly divided Congress in recent history convened in January 2001, under the cloud of a contested presidential election. A "weak" president and a divided, bitterly partisan Congress was a recipe for gridlock, the pundits said.

Yet the grid did not lock. With the support of a dozen moderate Democrats in the Senate, President Bush and a highly disciplined GOP House leadership powered through a $1.35 trillion, 10-year tax cut. Then, in a dramatic switch of strategy, the White House worked painstakingly with lawmakers on both sides to build a big consensus for the president's No Child Left Behind education reform.

Some victories were squeakers, such as a new law giving the president greater authority to negotiate free-trade agreements. The winning margin was ground out in the final minutes of voting on the House floor as the GOP leadership called fellow Republicans to account.

BUT what stamped the 107th Congress with the mark of history was its response to the events of 9/11. For almost six months, fighting words and bitter partisan rivalries were set aside, as lawmakers quickly passed a series of laws to better equip law enforcement to deal with the new crisis and authorize the military to hunt down terror perpetrators in Afghanistan.

Later, accounting scandals and a meltdown of confidence in corporate America prompted another wave of congressional activism and a broad new law on corporate accountability, which had also been resisted by the White House. This law is already under strain, as the first head of the oversight commission and the Securities and Exchange Commission chief were driven to resignation.

"This was not a Congress that intended to do a lot. Rather, it was forced to do a lot by circumstance," says Mr. Sabato of the University of Virginia.

A powerful bipartisan coalition of Midwestern lawmakers in the House and Senate put on the fastest of tracks a $190 billion, 10-year farm bill. In candid moments, sponsors admitted they needed to pass it while they could, because with the prospects of war and new deficits, the money would not be there another year.

How to spend public money was the big issue not resolved in this Congress. President Bush wanted lawmakers to limit discretionary spending to $750.5 billion in 2003. The Senate Appropriations Committee, then chaired by the resolute and ready-to-filibuster Senator Byrd, approved spending that topped that limit by at least $13 billion. The committee's ranking Republican, Sen. Ted Stevens of Alaska, agreed. With the president seen as the winner of recent midterm elections for the GOP, Senator Stevens recently conceded that the next Senate will "live within [Bush's] number."

A little more time and bending of wills might have moved many of the big-ticket bills left hanging this session. But old Congress hands say that these bills never completely die. The record of committee hearings and votes on the way set precedents and a tone for their future revival.

And legislation - and senators - often last longer than anyone expects. Confounding analysts, Sen. Strom Thurmond (R) of South Carolina gaveled out the Senate and a nearly 48-year term in it (the longest ever) by reading: "The Senate stands adjourned, sine die." Then, throwing hands in the air, he added, "That's all!"

What the 107th Congress achieved

Terrorism. Passed a $40 billion antiterror package in the wake of 9/11. Created a Department of Homeland Security, folding in agencies such as the Secret Service and duties such as airport security - the largest federal reorganization in 50 years. Authorized use of military force against Iraq.

Economy. Approved President Bush's $1.35 trillion, 10-year tax cut. Boosted farm subsidies to $190 billion over 10 years. Granted new power to the president to negotiate free-trade deals with other nations.

Education. Passed reforms requiring annual testing and allowing parents to move their kids from "failing" schools to other ones nearby.

Corporate curbs. Enacted two bills to protect against business fraud, including tougher penalties and reforms to accounting practices.

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