Big agenda - and a more vocal Congress

From prescription drugs to Iraq and tax cuts, new rifts open in Washington.

Call it the politics of triage. Congress returns Tuesday to a tougher agenda on all fronts than the one it left behind for the August recess: a jobless economic recovery, deepening security needs in Iraq, soaring budget deficits, and fallout from the worst blackout in US history.

After a period of relative quiescence, Congress appears poised to play a more vocal - and possibly powerful - role in policymaking.

Republicans control the White House and (on paper) both houses of Congress, but that does not mean unanimity this fall. Disagreements over how to proceed on key issues are opening the widest rifts within the majority since the Bush presidency began. Even the once-dubbed "must-pass" Medicare reform and energy bills are looking doubtful.

"If they had been able to conclude Medicare reform before the break, it certainly would have passed. Now, all of the partisan and party splits are reemerging," says Larry Sabato, a political scientist at the University of Virginia.

Given that scenario, the brokering of deals within the majority may come down to the White House and GOP moderates, who have been key in leveraging marginal Democratic votes needed for passing Medicare bill.

"It's our members in swing seats who could be defeated on issues such Medicare," says Sarah Chamberlain Resnick, executive director of the Republican Main Street Partnership, a group of GOP moderate lawmakers from the House and Senate.

Prescription politics

Medicare reform is a high-stakes issue for both parties. Republicans made gains in the 2002 congressional elections by tagging Democrats with obstructing relief for seniors on prescription drugs. If the bill is derailed this session, Democrats may level similar charges against the GOP in 2004.

The measure symbolizes how some of the new rifts are as much personal as partisan. Negotiations over the $400 billion Medicare prescription-drug plan bogged down late last month as negotiators representing Senate Finance Chairman Charles Grassley (R) of Iowa opted out of sessions with House negotiators. Senator Grassley is concerned that measures to ensure coverage of seniors in underserved rural areas are getting short shrift from the House, especially Rep. Bill Thomas (R), chairman of the Ways and Means Committee.

Meanwhile, interest groups are circulating new research concluding that these complicated bills won't do enough to improve life for seniors. Seniors are planning protests on Capitol Hill this week. The message: "Substantially improve the two Medicare bills or let them die in conference," says George Kourpias, president of the Alliance for Retired Americans, representing some 3 million union retirees.

With new deficit projections for next year approaching half a trillion dollars, many conservatives worry the nation cannot afford a drug entitlement without moves to increase private competition. The House version of this bill sets up a direct competition between private plans and the traditional Medicare system by 2010. Democrats oppose that.

Heat on Iraq rising

Iraq is also a source of growing concern. Several delegations of lawmakers spent time in Iraq during the August recess, and are returning with a first-hand look at conditions there both for US troops and the peace. Expect tougher questions from members to Bush administration officials on issues ranging from support for US troops and peace plans to an eventual exit strategy. Negotiations over defense authorizations are tied up with a controversial House provision to require more US content in defense purchases. It's a key outcome for House Armed Services Committee Chairman Duncan Hunter (R) of California, but President Bush has threatened to veto any bill with a Buy America provision.

Rifts within the GOP majority are also surfacing in a must-pass corporate tax bill. In response to a World Trade Organization ruling, US lawmakers have until Jan. 1, 2004, to rewrite the way US multinational corporations are subsidized and taxed. Otherwise, the European Union can retaliate with 100 percent tariffs on $4 billion of US exports.

Already, two rival bills have surfaced on the Republican side: Chairman Thomas is proposing a $200 billion corporate tax bill aimed at a wide range of manufacturers. Rep. Phil Crane of Illinois and Charles Rangel (D) of New York are proposing a bill with a 3.5 percent cut in the corporate tax rate of businesses that make goods in the US. Speaker Hastert has yet to take a position, but the White House is calling for a ceiling of $50 billion on any new corporate tax package.

While the issue may seem arcane to the public, it's a big one for lawmakers heading into a high-spending electoral cycle. It is also a top priority for the city's business lobbyists. Congress has "timed the business tax bill correctly. The [campaign] giving season has already begin, and this bill will come up when it will be peaking," says analyst Sabato.

For incumbents, the key is to build up the greatest possible campaign war chest well before the campaign.

Energy bill in flux

But the toughest issue for Republicans this session could prove to be getting an energy bill through the Senate. There are few issues more decisively regional than energy, especially after last month's blackouts. Facing deadlock in the Senate, Senate Republicans adopted an energy bill passed by Democrats in the 107th Congress. Republicans say they will substantially rewrite the bill in conference with the House.

Democrats are calling on Congress to pull the electricity provisions out of the bill and pass them separately. Rural lawmakers want to do the same for new provisions that require more use of corn-based ethanol as a fuel additive. But GOP leaders say these high-profile issues are needed to fuel momentum for the whole bill.

"If Congress does absolutely nothing, these latest blackouts offer us an eerie, unsettling peek into the future: Businesses shut down. Passengers stuck on subway cars. People walking home or sleeping on sidewalks," says House energy committee chair Billy Tauzin (R), who plans hearings on the issue this week.

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