- The Washington Times - Tuesday, January 3, 2006

Congress will face key issues remaining from 2005 when they return later this month, including legislation to reduce entitlement spending, the future of the USA Patriot Act and a package of tax-cut extensions.

When the House returns Jan. 31, leaders initially will focus on clearing legislation that would collect about $40 billion in savings from entitlement programs across the government — a top priority for congressional conservatives and President Bush.

Final passage of the legislation was stymied last month after the Senate approved the final version with a few technical changes, meaning the House must reapprove it.

Ron Bonjean, spokesman for House Speaker J. Dennis Hastert, Illinois Republican, said House leaders “intend to move very quickly” on the spending cuts and an extension of the Patriot Act, followed by a final package that will extend tax cuts.

Congress failed to pass a permanent extension of the Patriot Act last year, opting at the last minute for a one-month extension.

A House Democratic aide said Democrats have been alerted to expect votes Feb. 1 on both the spending cuts and the Patriot Act.

The Senate is scheduled to return Jan. 18. Initial focus will be on the Patriot Act, an asbestos litigation-reform bill and the Supreme Court nomination of Judge Samuel A. Alito Jr., said Bob Stevenson, spokesman for Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist, Tennessee Republican.

Mr. Stevenson said the preference is to approve the Patriot Act without another temporary extension, but that the Senate Judiciary Committee already will be carrying a heavy load with the Alito nomination.

Jim Manley, spokesman for Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid, Nevada Democrat, said “bipartisan concerns” have been raised over the Patriot Act, but Mr. Reid hopes to get “a good compromise bill done as quickly as possible.”

Congress also failed to produce a final package of tax-cut extensions last year.

The House and Senate each passed legislation extending many of the same expiring tax cuts, but the main component of each bill is different and a final compromise has not been crafted. The Senate bill’s centerpiece would prevent millions more Americans from having to pay the alternative minimum tax. The House bill would extend the reduced tax rate for capital gains and dividends income.

Democrats have argued that the proposed spending cuts would hurt the poor and that extending the tax cuts would benefit the rich.

Mr. Manley said the juxtaposition of the spending cuts and tax cuts could make it “a difficult vote for many moderate Republicans.”

Immigration also will be on the Senate agenda early this year. The House approved a border security bill in December. Mr. Stevenson said the Senate will debate the issue, but leaders haven’t decided which immigration bill to bring to the floor.

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