- The Washington Times - Saturday, November 29, 2003


The congressional year ends with the future of President Bush’s vaunted energy bill uncertain and no decision on how to fix the nation’s crumbling highways or avoid a looming trade war with Europe.

With Republicans in control of the White House and both houses of Congress, it wasn’t supposed to be this hard.

Republicans enter the 2004 election year with some real bragging rights: Congress this year gave full financial backing to the military and rebuilding effort in Iraq and passed a $330 billion tax cut that Republicans credit for rejuvenating the economy. The crowning achievement was a $395 billion Medicare bill with a new prescription-drug benefit for seniors and the disabled and a new role for private insurers.

Democrats saw these Republican victories as a minus for the country, blaming the tax cuts and new spending for helping push the federal deficit to a record $374 billion this year. “They inherited a surplus and turned it into huge, huge deficits,” said House Minority Whip Steny H. Hoyer, Maryland Democrat.

Congress also left Washington last week without completing half the spending bills for the 2004 budget year that began Oct. 1 and with a long list of items they failed to get through during the first year of the 108th Congress.

At the top of the list is the president’s far-reaching energy bill, which stalled in the Senate in the final days of the session. Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist, Tennessee Republican, says he’ll try again next year on a bill that sponsors say will make the nation more energy independent and that critics decry as a giveaway to oil and natural-gas producers.

Congress also didn’t deal with a World Trade Organization ruling that a $5 billion annual tax break for U.S. exporters is an illegal subsidy. The European Union has threatened to impose up to $4 billion in sanctions beginning next year unless the tax break is eliminated. House and Senate tax-writers were unable to get together on corporate-tax bills that would remedy the problem.

In another issue that pitted Republicans against Republicans, House Transportation Committee Chairman Don Young, Alaska Republican, wanted $375 billion to fund highway projects over the next six years, more than $100 billion above what the administration was willing to spend. Mr. Young’s proposal to raise the gas tax to pay for the extra projects met strong opposition from antitax Republicans, and a decision on the bill had to be put off.

Other disputes were far more partisan. Senate Democrats held up a White House-promoted bill to encourage charitable giving with tax cuts because of their anger over being shut out of negotiations on other legislation. “It’s a very, very sad situation,” said Sen. Rick Santorum, Pennsylvania Republican, the bill’s sponsor.

Senate Republicans fell one vote short in their attempt to overcome a Democratic filibuster on legislation to limit class-action lawsuits. Democrats also stopped a bill to limit the ability of medical-malpractice victims to win monetary damages.

President Bush, in a speech in Nevada Tuesday, blamed the Senate for holding up the medical-malpractice bill. “The senators must understand that nobody in America has ever been healed by a frivolous lawsuit,” he said.

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