- The Washington Times - Wednesday, September 7, 2005

It is hard to remember in recent history when we’ve had so many critical challenges, expected and unexpected, on the nation’s agenda at one time.

The war in Iraq, first and foremost, was the biggest long-term challenge facing the Bush administration and still is, but it was virtually blown off the front pages by Hurricane Katrina and the untold death and destruction the storm of the century wreaked along the Gulf coast that could inflict even wider economic repercussions across the country. Then came the death of ailing U.S. Chief Justice William Rehnquist and President Bush’s quick decision to elevate Supreme Court nominee John Roberts, to lead the high court.

Any of these events are large enough in scope to dominate the political landscape, but all three at once is a heavy load for any administration.

All this comes on top of an unusually busy legislative agenda in Congress that will make the next several months a time of trial and testing for our country and its institutions of government.

There were some voices this week who questioned whether Congress could deal with all of this at one time, and no doubt there will be some reprioritizing where some longer-term items will be pushed back on the calendar as House and Senate leaders sorts through the mountain of unfinished business.

Among the bills awaiting action from returning lawmakers was a budget reconciliation bill filled with a thorny thicket of legislative riders that include oil drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, Social Security reform that has dominated the domestic political debate for much of the year, and the need to crack down on illegal aliens.

Already, Senate leaders have postponed some items, including a vote on proposals to phase out or further reduce the estate tax, better known as the death tax.

Here’s what’s likeliest to happen to the Big Three items on the fall agenda.

Iraq: To some degree, the prospects could not be better. Iraqi leaders drafted a proposed constitution, despite the pessimists who said it wouldn’t be done in time, and Iraqis are to vote on that document by Oct. 15, which will lead to new national elections for a permanent democratic government.

Not only is Iraq’s government forming, but the military has scored some successes too. Recruitment is up and the Iraqi army is getting stronger and going on more military missions with U.S. forces. It was reported last week several hundred more terrorists were killed in cleanup operations against their strongholds. The agenda for a free, sovereign Iraq is on track and making progress.

Hurricane Katrina: After a slow start, the rescue and recovery effort is running on all cylinders. The levies have been plugged, flood waters are receding faster than expected, law and order has been restored by U.S. troops, dozens of corporations and thousands of private donors are contributing hundreds of millions of dollars and needed supplies to the relief effort, and work proceeds on finding temporary shelter, jobs and other assistance for the more than 1 million evacuees.

A massive economic and infrastructure recovery aid bill will pass in the weeks to come to pay for all this and the betting in this corner is that Louisiana and Mississippi will be back on their feet a lot sooner than purveyors of gloom and doom predict.

There will be a full and fair re-examination of how governments at all levels responded to Katrina, and every level will be found wanting. But the inquiry will show the worst breakdown occurred at the state and local level in Louisiana, from the governor to the mayor, who did not move quickly enough to evacuate New Orleans, as federal officials urged early on, which would have saved many lives.

The Supreme Court: A smart decision by President Bush to turn his attention to replacing the chief justice, who leads the court, and delay filling the seat of retiring Justice Sandra Day O’Connor who has agreed to remain in office until a successor is chosen later.

Judge Roberts, who had won support from a number of Democratic senators, was on a fast-track for confirmation before the court reconvenes next month.

Not only was he supported by none other than Chief Justice Rehnquist himself, who held him in high regard, but he has the collegial demeanor and political skills to work with justices of sometimes widely disparate views and temperaments who know him well, since he has argued 39 cases before the court.

This nomination, despite bitter political opposition from liberals, will be quickly approved by the Senate before the month is out, allowing the court to have its full complement of nine judges when it begins its new term Oct. 3.

Donald Lambro, chief political correspondent of The Washington Times, is a nationally syndicated columnist.

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