In '08, a curtailed agenda for Congress

The economy and education are areas where lawmakers may break partisan gridlock.

Dennis Cook/AP
'This is a unique bipartisan coalition that has some unique alliances.' – Education Secretary Margaret Spellings, on prospects for congressional reauthorization of the No Child Left Behind Act.

Democrats swept into power in Congress last year with an ambitious agenda to end the war in Iraq, curb corruption, and do more to help the middle class.

But lawmakers returning to Capitol Hill this week are still drafting an agenda for 2008 that already is overshadowed by the presidential race – and by a pattern of partisan gridlock.

First up is unfinished business from last session.

Congress is under pressure to fix a glitch in the 2008 defense policy bill, which President Bush sent back to the House on Dec. 28. Armed services committees in the House and Senate have been working on a fix but are letting party leaders decide how far to press a confrontation with the White House over the issue.

Next, Congress has until Feb. 1 to renew a controversial terrorist-surveillance program, including whether to shield telecommunications companies from lawsuits alleging violations of privacy. The Senate, which returns next week, must reconcile two competing versions of the bill and then come to terms with the House.

In recognition of Americans' growing concerns about a slowing economy, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Senate majority leader Harry Reid reached out to Mr. Bush and urged him to work with them to put together a bipartisan economic stimulus package that is "timely, targeted, and temporary," before unveiling his own plan.

"We want to work with you and the Republican leadership of the Congress to immediately develop a legislative plan based upon these principles so it can be passed and implemented into law without delay," they wrote to Bush on Jan. 11.

But Sen. Charles Schumer (D) of New York, in a weekly Democratic radio address the next day, charged that the Bush administration "seems satisfied with the current state of the economy and the fortunes of the middle class."

"Democrats are not," he said.

"It's a bad situation. You have a polarized Congress with several members of Congress running for the presidency and an institutional battle that's been taking place between the president and the Congress. It's a recipe for not legislating," says Julian Zelizer, a congressional historian at Princeton University in New Jersey. "That said, there's room for Congress to find a [legislative] package that works in everybody's political interest."

One such area is more spending on roads, bridges, and other projects in members' home districts: "Pork-barrel spending programs are still in everyone's interest in an election year," says Dr. Zelizer.

Another prospect for legislative action is renewal of the No Child Left Behind Act, which is facing criticism from both Democratic and Republican presidential candidates. Top congressional sponsors, such as Sen. Edward Kennedy (D) of Massachusetts and Rep. George Miller (D) of California, however, still support core principles of the law, especially an accountability system linked to federal dollars.

In an address to the National Press Club last week, Education Secretary Margaret Spellings said she is hopeful that the bipartisan congressional coalition that produced the landmark bill in 2001 will hold together.

"Things are particularly hard in a climate like this, [but] this is a unique bipartisan coalition that has some unique alliances," she said.

Moreover, criticism of No Child Left Behind out on the campaign trail could, in this case, favor moving the reauthorization in this session of Congress.

"What I know for sure is that the new president is probably not going to show up and work on George Bush's No. 1 domestic achievement," Secretary Spellings added.

The ups and downs of primary season are already resonating in the halls of Congress. The president still controls the veto pen and the bully pulpit. Democrats are looking to the presidential campaign to produce a candidate – and a set of issues – that can galvanize voters in November.

"We all know that this country is facing significant challenges, and the presidential nominees will spend the next several months attempting to fundamentally define how we address those challenges," said Rep. Rahm Emanuel of Illinois, chairman of the House Democratic Caucus, in an address to the Chicago Commercial Club on Monday.

Some Republicans, though, warn that the presidential campaign could polarize Congress even further.

"When you're in a situation when you have Democratic presidential candidates calling for things that are more than you can get passed in the Senate, that puts Democrats in a bind," says Don Stewart, a spokesman for Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell.

While legislative prospects may be iffy in an election year, prospects for vigorous oversight and investigation by a Democratic-controlled Congress are booming. In coming weeks, congressional panels are taking up issues ranging from the destruction of CIA interrogation videotapes and the political censorship of scientists studying climate change to multimillion-dollar pay packages for CEOs involved in the subprime mortgage crisis.

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