Monday, January 14, 2008

The 110th Congress will kick off its second session this week by tackling a politically explosive surveillance measure for the third time since last summer, but not much new is expected from lawmakers preoccupied with the November elections and stunted by partisan gridlock and a quasi-lame-duck president.

Aside from possible economic-stimulus efforts, most of the anticipated action by the Democrat-led Congress will revolve around unresolved measures from 2007, including Iraq war funding, health care reform, school-testing mandates and tax increases for oil companies.

“The stars are in configuration for this to be the least productive [legislative session] during an eighth year of a [presidential] administration,” said Stephen Hess of the Brookings Institution, a liberal Washington think tank. “Both parties are wanting to do things that are more about electioneering than about governing.”

Still, House members, who return tomorrow and senators, who convene next week, won’t be shy about using their bully pulpit to tout election-year priorities, even if they never intend to back up their rhetoric with new legislation, political experts say.

“Maybe we could call this session loud and unproductive,” said Jennifer Duffy, an analyst with the Cook Political Report. “There is going to be lots of partisan posturing, but Congress is going to move at the speed of molasses.”



Capitol Hill, dogged by intense bickering since Democrats took control last January, perhaps will face no issue more divisive this year — aside from the war-funding issue — than that of updating the 30-year-old Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA).

“The Senate is committed to improving our nation’s intelligence laws to fight terrorism while protecting Americans” civil liberties,” said Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, Nevada Democrat. “We need to take the time necessary to debate a bill that does just that, rather than rushing one through.”

Democrats reluctantly approved a temporary FISA extension in August — after they failed to block a Republican demand to give immunity to telecommunications companies that participated in President Bush’s warrantless domestic-surveillance program, which began shortly after the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.

The phone companies — which helped the government in its warrantless electronic-surveillance program — say they were just being good patriots. But civil liberties activists and many Democrats say the program was unconstitutional.

Democratic leaders since have insisted the immunity provision be stripped from any permanent FISA legislation. Mr. Reid last month went so far as to pull a FISA measure from consideration after failing to secure enough support to drop immunity from the measure.

The White House has threatened to veto any bill that doesn’t contain the immunity provision.

But Republicans insist strengthening FISA is vital for closing legal loopholes that could be used by terrorists.

“This is a battle we must fight and win again in early 2008,” said House Minority Leader John Boehner, Ohio Republican.

War funding

Democrats, loath to acknowledge U.S. military gains in Iraq, likely will delay approval of the remaining $126 billion of war funds for 2008 until as late as March.

The foot-dragging will prompt the same criticism for not supporting troops at the front that last month forced Democrats to pass $70 billion of the total $196.4 billion war request.

Republicans expect the same outcome this year.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi will argue the $70 billion can feed and equip troops in Iraq and Afghanistan until April or May, depending on how fast the generals spend and whether the Pentagon is prepared to raid other accounts to fund the mission, a top Democratic aide said.

Similar arguments fell flat last year.

The White House plans to push for the rest of the 2008 war funds as soon as Congress convenes, and President Bush will submit his initial 2009 war request as soon as next month.

“We believe it is not so much about figuring out when this money runs out, but the principle behind the funding,” said Sean Kevelighan, spokesman for the White House Office of Management and Budget. “Our generals in the field shouldn’t be focused on accounting maneuvers instead of military maneuvers.”

Mrs. Pelosi, California Democrat, said she is considering moving the war debate away from funding, having lost repeated standoffs with Mr. Bush over war spending. But footing the bill for the unpopular war remains a hot-button issue for the party’s antiwar base and a significant bloc of House Democrats.

Approving unfettered war funds will not go down easy for Democratic leaders, who credit antiwar fervor with helping propel the party’s election gains in 2006.

Mrs. Pelosi has proposed charting a different antiwar path, including reviving a bill to mandate the administration report to Congress within 60 days on plans for a troop withdrawal from Iraq and then make follow-up reports every 90 days.

“There is a strong interest in the House running toward the policy side, rather than the funding,” Mrs. Pelosi said at the close of the last year. She said she hoped to steer the war debate to “larger policy issues” in the Middle East.

Health and education

Democrats again will use their majority status to push for increased spending for education and health care programs, despite failing to pass into law two of their 2007 priorities: reauthorizing No Child Left Behind and expanding the State Children’s Health Insurance Program.

A proposal to reauthorize No Child Left Behind (NCLB) — Mr. Bush’s signature education law — could be in the works in the coming months.

The program requires almost 50 million American public school children to be tested annually for proficiency in reading and math. The goal is to narrow the achievement gap between minority and white students, and increase accountability of schools.

Democrats want to remove some of the penalties placed on schools that fail to reach mandatory benchmarks, saying states have been given little flexibility in implementing the law and that there is no recognition for schools that have made incremental progress.

“Accountability measures have proven far too punitive,” Mr. Reid said. “And NCLB has been vastly underfunded since it was first enacted.”

But Mr. Bush said he would veto any legislation that weakens accountability provisions in the law.

The law, signed by Mr. Bush in 2002, calls for Congress to revisit the law after five years and make needed changes. Even without congressional action reauthorizing the law, it will remain on the books in its current form.

Senate leaders late in 2007 made a bipartisan decision to delay consideration of NCLB renewal legislation until this year. House negotiations over a similar bill also stalled last year.

Expanding federal health care plans again will be part of the Democrat’s agenda in 2008, despite several highly publicized defeats at the hands of Republicans last year to increase spending for the State Children’s Health Insurance Program (SCHIP).

Democratic leaders haven’t said whether they will introduce another SCHIP bill this year. But the party is expected to keep health care in the spotlight in 2008 by pushing to reauthorize the Indian Health Care Improvement Act, which stalled last year in the Senate after Republicans fought to eliminate urban Indian health care provisions.

The proposal calls for expanding SCHIP coverage for qualified American Indians, and exempting Indians enrolled in Medicaid from paying cost-sharing or premiums for certain services.

Another issue left over from 2007 that Democrats want to address is a $22 billion tax package Republicans blocked from an expansive energy bill that passed in December.

The provision called for incentives for renewable energy sources, such as wind, solar and biofuels, that would be offset by repealing $13.5 billion in tax breaks for five large oil companies.

Republicans oppose the plan because they say it will result in higher gas and heating-oil prices for consumers.

Another provision stripped from the energy bill — a mandate that utility companies produce at least 15 percent of their electricity with renewable energy sources by 2020 — also may be reintroduced this year.

Additional energy-related legislation aimed at reducing carbon emissions is expected, Democrats say.

Congressional elections

David Wasserman of the Cook Political Report rates 22 Republican seats and 14 Democratic seats in the House as “competitive,” and predicts Democrats will pick up two to seven seats.

The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, the party’s fundraising arm in the House, has targeted 40 Republican-held seats as “vulnerable.”

Republicans deny 40 of their House seats are in danger, and have targeted more than a dozen Democratic-held seats as potentially winnable.

In the House, 19 Republicans have announced they won’t seek re-election in November, and three Republicans left office early and will have their seats filled by special elections before November.

Five House Democrats are stepping down in November, while the seat formerly held by the late Rep. Julia Carson of Indiana, who died in office last year, will be filled by a special election in March.

In the Senate, 23 Republican and 12 Democratic seats are up for re-election. Republicans will have to worry about defending seven vulnerable seats, Ms. Duffy said. Democrats so far face only one tough race: Sen. Mary L. Landrieu’s Louisiana seat.

“It’s going to be a fun election year — on all fronts,” Ms. Duffy said.

CONGRESS “08

The 2008 congressional session begins tomorrow in the House and next Tuesday in the Senate.

Measures Congress left unresolved in 2007 that will be readdressed this year:

•Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act: Congress passed a compromise six-month extension that expires Feb. 1 after Democrats and Republicans last summer failed to reach an agreement on immunity for telecommunications companies that participated in President Bush”s warrantless domestic-surveillance program begun shortly after the September 11 terrorist attacks.

•Iraq war funding: Democrats last month reluctantly voted to approve $70 billion of the total $196.4 billion in war requested by Mr. Bush. Democrats likely will delay approval of the remaining $126 billion until as late as March.

Measures Congress left unresolved in 2007 that might be readdressed this year:

•State Children”s Health Insurance Program: The Democrat-controlled Congress twice last year passed bills to significantly expand the program by about 4 million children for a total of about 10 million children. Mr. Bush vetoed both measures.

•No Children Left Behind: Senate leaders late in 2007 made a bipartisan decision to delay consideration of renewal legislation until this year. House negotiations also stalled last year over a similar bill. The program requires almost 50 million American public-school children to be tested annually for proficiency in reading and math.

•Indian Health Care Improvement Act: Reauthorization of this law stalled last year in the Senate after Republicans fought to eliminate urban Indian health care provisions. The proposal calls for expanding federally subsidized health care coverage for qualified American Indians and exempting Indians enrolled in Medicaid from paying cost-sharing or premiums for certain services.

•Tax increase for oil companies: Democrats are expected to push again for an almost $22 billion tax package that Republicans blocked from an expansive energy bill that passed in December. The provision called for incentives for renewable energy sources, such as wind, solar and biofuels, which would be offset by repealing $13.5 billion in tax breaks for five large oil companies.

Measures that Congress left unresolved in 2007 that are unlikely to re-emerge this year:

•Immigration reform: The Senate last summer killed a Bush-backed comprehensive immigration-reform proposal.

•Stem-cell research funding: Mr. Bush in July vetoed his third bill in nearly seven years to reject legislation that would have allowed federal funding for embryonic-stem-cell research.

Source: The Washington Times

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