Congressional crunch: big bills, little time

Call it the pause before the great push. Lawmakers, who are back home reconnecting with voters over the July 4 break, return next week to a long list of incompletes that could shape fall elections.

"Like last year, all will get done in July," says Ron Bonjean, a spokesman for House Speaker Dennis Hastert.

What's making that difficult is that, unlike last year, the rifts within GOP ranks on the bills yet to be completed are often as daunting as those between Republicans and Democrats.

For Democrats, the to-do list is grist for campaign speeches about the Republican "do-nothing" Congress: no lobby reform, no immigration reform, not even a budget for the fiscal year starting Oct. 1.

"This is a do-nothing Congress," says Rep. Steny Hoyer of Maryland, the Democratic whip. "This has also been the most complacently complicit Congress perhaps in history."

Social Security reform, the top domestic priority of the White House at the start of the 109th Congress, never got off the ground. Soaring deficits sapped what little enthusiasm existed on Capitol Hill to take on an issue long viewed as the "third rail" of American politics – an issue so charged that it endangers anyone who touches it.

But Republicans say big-ticket issues are still in play in the three critical weeks before August recess – typically the last window for legislating in an election year. And they insist that's enough time to wrap up at least some of them.

Immigration

Immigration will be a major test. The two versions of immigration reform take bookend positions on an issue that is rousing strong feelings across the political spectrum. The House bill deals only with border security; the Senate bill has a security plan plus a path to legalization for millions of workers now in the country illegally.

This week, both the GOP-controlled House and Senate are launching field hearings to highlight differences in these competing approaches.

Wednesday, Sen. Arlen Specter (R) of Pennsylvania, who chairs the Senate Judiciary Committee, convenes a field hearing on Independence Mall in Philadelphia on the need for comprehensive reform and guest workers. Hours later, a House subcommittee on International Terrorism and Nonproliferation holds a hearing in San Diego and on July 7 in Laredo, Texas, in a bid to examine the vulnerability of the US southern border, especially to entry by terrorists.

Still, there are signs that positions are softening. Last week, members of the Senate Judiciary Committee said they were open to an approach that would secure the borders first, then set a timetable for other reforms. House majority leader John Boehner (R) of Ohio says he is "encouraged" by the change in tone. Sen. John McCain (R) of Arizona, a sponsor of the Senate bill, says he is having discussions with "our House friends," and that President Bush remains committed to getting a bill.

"My hope is this summer will be a summer of solving problems, not pointing out problems in each other's bills," said Sen. Lindsey Graham (R) of South Carolina, at a bipartisan rally for immigration reform last week.

Voting Rights Act

Provisions of the landmark Voting Rights Act of 1965 are set to expire next year. Last week, some House conservatives balked at some of its provisions, including one that requires state and local governments to print ballots in foreign languages – or provide interpreters – where needed. The White House favors reauthorizing the Voting Rights Act without modification.

Rep. Barney Frank (D) of Massachusetts predicts that the Voting Rights Act reauthorization will pass this year, but "at a very high cost" to Republicans. Divisive votes within the GOP over issues such as bilingual ballots could "totally alienate Hispanics," he says.

Estate tax

The estate tax is another issue that's dividing Republicans. It is currently on track to phase out in 2010 – but only for that year. Republicans have tried to end the tax permanently, but have so far failed to secure 60 votes in the Senate to detail a threatened filibuster and pass permanent repeal.

As a compromise, the House on June 22 voted 269-156 to permanently exempt estates valued at less than $5 million for an individual and $10 million for a couple.

But last week, Senate GOP leaders delayed bringing the compromise bill to the floor. Some Senate conservatives are holding out for a full repeal.

Lobbying reform

After corruption scandals involving former lobbyist Jack Abramoff and the conviction of former Rep. Randy "Duke" Cunningham (R) of California for bribery, GOP leaders earlier this year made the reform of lobbying practices a top priority. But early on, House Republican leaders disagreed over how strict the reforms ought to be. As a result, the proposals have been deadlocked for weeks. House Republicans want to curb 527s, the independent politi- cal groups that played a big role in running ads and defining the agenda in the last presidential election. Senate Democrats want that piece out of the final version of the bill. The victory of a lobbyist to replace Mr. Cunningham in California's 50th district may further weaken the impetus for reform, as it seemed to signal that the Democrats' "culture of corruption" argument wasn't picking up traction with voters.

Internet access

A dispute over Internet regulation is shaping up into a blockbuster debate. At issue? Whether consumer rights to broadband access, or "network neutrality," should be ensured by the government.

A bid to make net neutrality part of a broader bill – the first overhaul of telecommunications policy in a decade – failed by one vote in a Senate committee last week.

"If this [net neutrality] amendment is adopted, the bill will never come out of the Congress," said Sen. Ted Stevens (R) of Alaska, chairman of the Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee. Democrats warned that without such an amendment, the broader telecom bill would never pass the Senate.

GOP leaders say they will not bring up the bill without 60 votes. "It's a central question on the future of the Internet, and now it will have to be worked out on the floor," said Sen. Olympia Snowe (R) of Maine after the vote.

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