- The Washington Times - Sunday, December 10, 2006

From combined dispatches

The 109th Congress ended yesterday with a flurry of legislation and promises of change when Democrats take over the House and Senate in January.

Democrats, who had criticized a “do-nothing Congress” under Republicans, plan a quick start in the new session by voting for the first federal minimum-wage increase in a decade. They also vow to cut costs for health care and education and step up calls for a new Iraq war strategy.

“We must end the policies that have divided this nation and come together on a new way forward,” Rep. Silvestre Reyes, Texas Democrat, said yesterday in his party’s weekly radio address.

President Bush, in his weekly radio address yesterday, also called for an end to partisan bickering over Iraq.

“Now it is the responsibility of all of us in Washington — Republicans and Democrats alike — to come together and find greater consensus on the best way forward,” Mr. Bush said.

As often is the case in the waning hours, the congressional session ended with a mad rush to deal with untended business.

In the long final day, ending about 4:40 a.m. in the Senate, the two chambers passed a massive tax and trade bill, prevented the government from shutting down and approved dozens of other bills. They included a bill allowing civilian nuclear technology transfers to India; a fisheries management measure; and bills to fund programs to combat AIDS, pandemic diseases and premature births.

The tax measure revived about 20 tax breaks, at a cost of $38 billion over five years, and a dozen credits promoting alternative and efficient uses of energy.

It extended through the end of next year a deduction for research and development initiatives, and renewed deductions of up to $4,000 for higher-education costs. There were breaks for teachers who pay for supplies out of their pockets and for taxpayers in nine states with no income taxes, allowing them to deduct state and local sales taxes.

The popular tax breaks became a magnet for contentious and expensive bills. The package included legislation to open 8.3 million acres in the Gulf of Mexico to oil and gas drilling and to prevent a 5 percent cut in Medicare payments to doctors from taking effect Jan. 1.

The legislation also contained measures to permanently normalize trade with Vietnam and extend trade benefits for four Andean nations, sub-Saharan African countries and Haiti. The Haiti act was the toughest to swallow for some lawmakers from the South; they said it would further erode jobs in their states’ textile industries.

The U.S.-India nuclear bill carves out an exemption in American law to allow U.S. civilian nuclear trade with India in exchange for Indian safeguards and inspections at 14 civilian nuclear plants, while eight military plants would be off-limits. Congressional action was needed because U.S. law bars nuclear trade with countries, such as India, that have not submitted to full international inspections.

Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist, who is retiring from Congress, hailed his fellow Republicans for their work in the final hours of their control.

“Just when everyone bet against us, Republicans put together a broad package of energy, tax, trade and health care measures,” the Tennessee Republican said.

As one of its final acts, Congress approved a stopgap measure keeping federal programs running at or slightly below current levels through Feb. 15. Mr. Bush quickly signed it yesterday.

The action was necessary because lawmakers failed to pass the annual spending bills covering the budget year that began Oct. 1, except those dealing with defense and homeland security.

Rep. David R. Obey, Wisconsin Democrat and incoming chairman of the House Appropriations Committee, said the bill was “a blatant admission of abject failure by the most useless Congress in modern times.”

Democrats also pointed out that the House met only 102 days this session, fewer than the 110 days of the maligned “do-nothing” Congress of the Truman presidency. House Majority Leader-elect Steny H. Hoyer, Maryland Democrat, said the five-day workweek would return.

Republicans claim some major accomplishments this year: passing a pension overhaul, renewing the USA Patriot Act, enacting a port security bill and endorsing Mr. Bush’s plans to create military commissions to prosecute terror suspects.

The 109th Congress could not move ahead on promised lobbying and ethics changes, failed to reach a consensus on the administration’s terrorist surveillance program and did not develop a plan to deal with the estimated 12 million to 20 million illegal aliens in the country.

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