Tuesday, September 6, 2005

Congress returns today from its August vacation to tackle a mountain of leftover legislative business, plus an even bigger challenge: a massive recovery package for the Gulf Coast cities that were flattened and flooded by Hurricane Katrina.

Awaiting action when lawmakers reconvene is Judge John G. Roberts Jr.’s Supreme Court nomination, a budget-cutting reconciliation bill filled with legislative riders that include oil drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, a phaseout or reduction of the estate tax, Social Security reform to let workers invest in U.S. Treasury bills, reauthorization of the Patriot Act, and a renewed crackdown on illegal aliens.

President Bush has had a string of legislative victories over the past eight months that included an overhaul of the bankruptcy laws, legal class-action reforms, a massive transportation bill and the Central American Free Trade Agreement.

But the next four months are expected to be far more contentious as a result of the decline in Mr. Bush’s job-approval rating, which is hovering around 40 percent, and the increasing polarization in Congress, congressional strategists say.

“There will be a Republican leadership meeting Tuesday to discuss the fall agenda that will include immigration, appropriation bills, reconciliation and potential action on Social Security,” said Ron Bonjean, chief spokesman for House Speaker J. Dennis Hastert, Illinois Republican.

“On top of that, we will be evaluating the needs of Hurricane Katrina’s victims and working to get the areas affected by the hurricane back on [their] feet,” he said.

Congress quickly approved an interim $10.5 billion assistance bill last week as the first step in the early recovery efforts, but congressional officials said a far more expansive aid package is expected in the next several weeks after further assessment of the damage caused by the Category 4 hurricane.

Other senior leadership officials said Friday there could be additional assistance to counter any downturn in the economy as a result of the disruptions in oil production in the Gulf of Mexico or the impact of higher fuel prices on key sectors of the nation’s transportation and industrial sectors.

Some congressional aides, however, question whether a divided Congress will be able to handle both a massive regional recovery bill and everything else already on its plate in the final four months of this legislative session.

“Do you think we’re going to be able to pass substantial Medicaid cuts and Social Security reform in the middle of this? You can’t put that much on the plate,” Steve Bell, New Mexico’s Sen. Pete V. Domenici’s chief of staff, told the Los Angeles Times.

Not a problem, said House Majority Leader Tom DeLay.

“We can do two things at the same time. We’re going to keep our agenda moving,” he said Friday.

But House Majority Whip Roy Blunt of Missouri said: “Some committees may have to reprioritize their agenda” to deal with the massive recovery programs that Congress will have to undertake.

“I think this is going to take some time. Now, how much it slows our September-October schedule, I don’t know,” Mr. Blunt said.

Mike Franc, senior congressional analyst at the Heritage Foundation, said, “A lot of the president’s remaining agenda will be overshadowed by what happens in the Gulf of Mexico. If the federal response and the way everything is handled is done competently and effectively, that’s going to be a major feather in Bush’s cap.”

As for the remaining agenda, Mr. Franc said nothing else “stands out as a particularly unique challenge.”

“It’s more of a steady-as-you-go period. Social Security could turn out to be a major achievement,” he said.

Amy Fagan contributed to this report.

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