- The Washington Times - Monday, September 6, 2004

How much is left to do as Congress returns today from its six-week summer break? So much that plans already are under way for a lame-duck session after the Nov. 2 election.

With only 19 working days left until its original adjournment target of Oct. 1, Congress has yet to complete work on 12 of the 13 annual appropriation bills, two tax bills and a six-year highway bill loaded with election-year favors for voters and donors.

Dozens of other long-pending proposals are trapped in the legislative logjam, ranging from a ban on same-sex “marriage” to an increase in the minimum wage.

Adding to the overload is the political imperative to react to the September 11 commission’s unanimous recommendation that Congress and President Bush overhaul the nation’s intelligence system as soon as possible.

“I can’t imagine they can accomplish that in the highly partisan atmosphere of this Congress, especially in the closing weeks of their re-election campaigns,” said Sean M. Theriault, an assistant professor of government at the University of Texas at Austin.

Mr. Theriault, an authority on “congressional polarization,” said that “for at least the last 30 years, Democrats have become more liberal and Republicans have become more conservative.”

A bipartisan approach to intelligence reform is being tested in the Senate by Majority Leader Bill Frist, Tennessee Republican, and Minority Leader Tom Daschle, South Dakota Democrat — even though Mr. Frist flew to Mr. Daschle’s home state to urge voters to oust him this fall.

The two leaders appointed a task force containing an equal number of Democratic and Republican senators to consider changes in congressional oversight procedures. They also decided that any bill restructuring intelligence operations in the executive branch should be drafted by the Senate Governmental Affairs Committee.

But the draft version won’t be finished until Oct. 1, said Sen. Susan Collins, Maine Republican, who chairs the committee, and Sen. Joe Lieberman of Connecticut, the ranking Democrat. The bill then must be studied by their colleagues, and debated and amended on the Senate floor.

House leaders aren’t taking the bipartisan route. Speaker J. Dennis Hastert, Illinois Republican, and Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, California Democrat, have ordered rival bills to be introduced before Saturday, the third anniversary of the September 11 terror attacks.

Reaching a compromise acceptable to the Senate, House and White House before members sprint out of Washington for full-time re-election campaigning “would be virtually impossible,” said Bill Frenzel, a guest scholar at the District-based Brookings Institution and a 20-year House veteran.

“All Congress is going to do [before the election] is pass a couple more easy appropriation bills like the one paying the expenses of the legislative branch,” Mr. Frenzel predicted. “They’ll put the rest into a continuing resolution that will bounce all the hard decisions into a lame-duck session.”

Still, several items are expected to pass before Congress breaks for the election.

Two bills have overwhelming bipartisan support in both chambers despite Mr. Bush’s opposition: the $300 billion six-year highway bill, which he says is too expensive, and a tax bill that would extend some expiring middle-class tax breaks for two years, rather than the five demanded by Mr. Bush.

Predicting that Congress will ignore the president’s misgivings, Mr. Frenzel said, “Just before an election, there comes a time when you don’t care what the White House says, because it’s your own re-election that’s at stake.”

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