- The Washington Times - Monday, February 11, 2002

Congress is slowly getting down to business at the beginning of another election season, which means that little will be done beyond the necessity of approving money to fight terrorism and run the government.
Congressional analysts say the budget will dominate most of what lawmakers accomplish in this session, and almost everything else is expected to get bogged down in posturing and legislative infighting.
Outside additional spending for the war, "and a little bit else here and there, it is difficult to see much in the way of significant legislation moving forward," says Robert Reischauer, former director of the Congressional Budget Office.
"The safe bet in this town is to put your money on political gridlock, and that is doubly true in an election year when both Republicans and Democrats are trying to distinguish their product for the voters," says Mr. Reischauer, who is now president of the Urban Institute.
"It's hard to see the parties coming together and narrowing the differences on most of these policies, but compromise could be facilitated by fear that they will be blamed for failure," he says.
Lawmakers have a lot of legislative work on their plate left over from last year, from the energy independence bill to trade negotiating authority to campaign finance reform. But President Bush's State of the Union address and his proposed $2.12 trillion budget seem to have established the major priorities on Capitol Hill for the year.
At the heart of that agenda is a $48 billion increase for the military to conduct the war on terrorism, plus $38 billion for homeland defense. Just about everyone on both sides of the political aisle agree that Mr. Bush will get everything he has asked for, perhaps more, in both categories.
The rest of the government's discretionary budget, which the administration wants to hold to a 2 percent increase, will be more difficult for the president. Nothing is more predictable in an election year than domestic spending increases, especially earmarked new spending for local projects, otherwise known as "pork," for which lawmakers exuberantly take credit at re-election time.
"The result will be that in the areas where the president wants to hold down spending, he will be forced to sign appropriations bills that are bigger than he would like. He will be battling both Republicans and Democrats if he tries to veto those bills," Mr. Reischauer says.
Mr. Bush's other budget priorities include his energy plan to open the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to oil exploration and "fast track" trade negotiating authority to develop free-trade deals with other countries. Both bills, which have passed the House, face intense opposition from Democrats in the Senate, their prospects remaining 50-50 at best.
Other legislation left over from last year includes the patients' bill of rights to further regulate health maintenance organizations, prescription-drug benefits for the needy and a bill that would ease tax-deduction rules to encourage more charitable giving. All have become bogged down in the legislative process.
However, a compromise worked out last week between the administration and Sen. Joseph I. Lieberman, Connecticut Democrat, has somewhat improved the charitable bill's chances of passage this year.
The House will attempt to pass the campaign finance reform bill Wednesday, but Speaker J. Dennis Hastert, Illinois Republican, remains firmly opposed to it. Its prospects are dim.
"The fight over the president's economic-stimulus bill in the Senate and its eventual demise at the hands of the Democrats is a preview of what we can probably expect this year," a Senate Republican leadership official says.

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