- The Washington Times - Sunday, July 8, 2001

A divided Congress returns from its Fourth of July holiday today, with the Republican House and the Democratic Senate resuming their battles over spending, campaign-finance reform, a patients' bill of rights and trade expansion.
These and other legislative issues are expected to dominate the second half of this year's session of Congress, with an end-of-the-fiscal-year budget showdown looming as perhaps the biggest fight of all between Democratic leaders and the White House, which is trying to keep overall spending increases to between 4 percent and 5 percent.
President Bush goes into this session in relatively good shape politically. He has passed the centerpiece of his campaign agenda, an ambitious 10-year, $1.35 trillion tax cut plan. The IRS will begin sending rebate checks to taxpayers on the first part of the retroactive tax cuts this month. The first of three lower income tax withholding rates also became effective on July 1.
The House and Senate have passed different versions of Mr. Bush's education-reform package, and a final version is expected to be finalized in the next few weeks. "The only real differences are over money. We'll have this on the president's desk this month," said a House Republican leadership official.
But after the administration's success on tax cuts and education, the remainder of Mr. Bush's agenda is beginning to look a little unfocused and in some cases uncertain as it competes with different legislative priorities in the Democratic-controlled Senate.
"He may have peaked a little early. The question now is what does the president do to take take back the stage so that he can set the agenda?" said a Republican leadership official.
The Democratic patients' bill of rights, which easily passed the Senate before last week's recess, threw the White House on the defensive until they hastily switched strategies and had House Republican leaders craft an alternative bill more to the president's liking, which he quickly embraced.
House Republican leaders believe that they have the votes for the more restricted alternative, which would allow them to go into a House-Senate conference to negotiate a compromise bill the president can sign.
But the White House's temporary confusion over its legislative strategy in the patients' bill of rights fight in the Senate dismayed its supporters inside and outside Congress. For a while, the president's top advisers were divided over a veto strategy vs. developing a watered-down bill in the House as a backup plan.
The next month will largely be spent fighting over the 13 appropriations bills that Congress must pass to run the government. The White House Office of Management and Budget has been struggling to keep spending increases under budget ceilings set by Congress earlier this year, but appropriators have been adding hundreds of earmarked spending provisions that the White House calls "pure pork."
"The issue will be wasteful big spending or keeping spending under control," said a House Republican budget official. "We hope these bills can be kept to within reasonable limits, but there is always the veto."
The White House is making a renewed push this month for Mr. Bush's once-troubled proposal to provide grants to faith-based organizations to help the poor, and that effort has breathed new life into the plan. "We've got Democrats and Republicans for this," said a House leadership official. "We'll pass it before the August break."
Republican officials concede, however, that the chances of any action on the administration's energy development proposals are virtually zero.
Senate Democrats have their own agenda and next on their list will be raising the minimum wage from $5.15 an hour to $6.65 over three years. Republicans plan to attach a number of small business tax cuts to offset the wage increase, something the Democrats virulently oppose.
The battle over the Senate-passed McCain-Feingold campaign-finance reform bill has moved to the House, where Republican leaders hope to stop it this week with a substitute that bans soft money but without the restrictions on advocacy ads that critics say are unconstitutional.

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