- The Washington Times - Monday, January 19, 2004

Congress returns today, but historically little gets done in presidential election years as the two parties compete to define agendas and block the other from passing its own legislation.

Although the White House and Republican leaders hope to enact as much of Mr. Bush’s remaining agenda as they can, as well as a budget for fiscal 2005, there is little likelihood that they will be able to pass any of the proposals the president is to outline in the State of the Union address, according to Republican congressional leadership officials and legislative analysts.

For one thing, the legislative session will be much shorter this year because of no-vote days during the primaries, the summer presidential-nominating conventions and the desire on both sides of the aisle to wrap up business earlier than usual and get home to campaign in the fall.

With few exceptions, “the odds of getting anything that is not an appropriations bill over the finish line is very, very small,” said Michael Franc, vice president of congressional affairs for the Heritage Foundation.

“I think the Republicans have a fair chance of getting some of the leftover things passed, but I don’t think they are going to get any of the grand new proposals that the president will propose in his State of the Union address,” said veteran Congress-watcher Stephen Hess of the Brookings Institution.

“Many of his proposals are very good, but big proposals like these have the gestation period of an elephant. They’ll take time,” Mr. Hess said.

For example, a key Republican congressional leadership official said there was little likelihood that Congress would act on the president’s proposal this year to deal with illegal Mexican aliens working in this country through a temporary guest-worker program.

“We’ll be looking at immigration in committee to evaluate the president’s proposal, but I do not know to what extent,” the official said.

Democrats intend to hammer away at the same domestic issues they have been hitting in the past three years of Mr. Bush’s presidency: the $1.7 trillion in income tax cuts during this decade and the mounting deficit that could hit $500 billion in the next fiscal year; fully funding the president’s No Child Left Behind education program; providing health insurance coverage for the uninsured; and requiring a change to the Medicare prescription-drug law to include negotiating lower drug prices.

At a news conference Friday, Senate Democratic Leader Tom Daschle, South Dakota Democrat, struck the key political themes that he and House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, California Democrat, want their party to campaign on this year — suggesting that Mr. Bush’s proposed ambitious space-exploration program comes at the expense of needed social-welfare programs.

“America has the genius to send a spacecraft 35 million miles to explore the surface of Mars. But the president tells us we cannot write a budget for America without heaping crushing debt on our children and making painful cuts in veterans’ health care, in worker training and in affordable housing for America’s families,” Mr. Daschle said in a preview of the Democrats’ response to the president’s fiscal 2005 budget proposals.

Mr. Daschle made clear that he and his colleagues will be fighting any attempt by Mr. Bush to seek legislative action on proposals to enlarge tax-free savings accounts or to let workers privately invest a portion of their Social Security payroll taxes in stock or bond mutual funds.

There was little indication from any Democratic leader last week that the party planned to showcase a new campaign agenda to compete with the Republicans’ election-year proposals.

“These are our bread-and-butter issues. There won’t be anything new that we’ll be proposing,” said a House Democratic leadership official.

Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist will begin action today on his shortlist of legislative priorities, with an expected vote on the unfinished omnibus appropriations bill from last year that passed the House.

His short list for passage includes reauthorization of the welfare reforms enacted in the mid-1990s, tort reform governing class-action lawsuits, the highway authorization bill and possibly the long-stalled energy bill.

“There is a very good chance that Congress will pass a good welfare-reform bill. Filibustering that in an election year would be foolhardy,” the Heritage Foundation’s Mr. Franc said. “The other would be tort reform, though I’m not sure it will get over the finish line.”

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