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After Iraq, Congress Struggles With Backlog

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Now that Congress has taken the momentous step of authorizing a possible war halfway around the globe, it faces a challenge that hits much closer to home: how to wrap up this year’s contentious legislative session and head home to campaign for November’s elections.

Weary lawmakers are emerging from weeks of all-consuming debate about Iraq to find that a host of other issues have languished: energy policy, homeland security legislation and the budget, to name a few.

An enormous backlog of work remains--but many lawmakers are ready to throw in the towel, adjourn until after the election and return for a lame-duck session.

“I don’t think there’s much choice,” Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle (D-S.D.) said Friday of a postelection session. “This is a very complicated and a very political time of the year.”

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Just a few hours after the Senate’s resounding early-morning vote authorizing military action against Iraq, Democrats sought to return attention to the troubled economy, the issue they want to make central to the campaign.

“Anyone invested in the market or worried about a job can take no comfort” from the Republican stewardship of the economy, House Minority Leader Richard A. Gephardt (D-Mo.) said at a daylong forum staged by the Democrats to spotlight economic trends.

But with the Iraq vote behind them, it’s not clear how much more work lawmakers have in them before they head home--perhaps at the end of next week--to prepare for election day. Although most incumbents are heavily favored to win reelection, the outcomes of a relative handful of House and Senate races are expected to determine which party controls the chambers.

Autumn is traditionally Congress’ time for tying up the loose ends--finishing must-pass appropriation bills, negotiating final versions of legislation in House-Senate conference committees. But this fall is different. Congress has missed its adjournment target, which was Friday, but it has yet to send to the White House a single one of the 13 annual appropriation bills needed to finance the government. Instead, federal agencies are running on stopgap funding. And negotiations among lawmakers on several issues have stalled short of producing bills that would, if finished, represent major legislative accomplishments.

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All those matters have been eclipsed by Iraq, at least since Congress returned about a month ago from its summer recess.

This has frustrated Democrats, who want voters to focus on other issues that traditionally work more to their political advantage: corporate corruption, unemployment, Social Security.

Throughout this week’s Iraq debate, Democrats struggled daily to draw attention to their agenda. One day, party leaders tried to spotlight corporate accountability by calling for the resignation of Securities and Exchange Commission Chairman Harvey L. Pitt. Another day, they called a news conference to sign a pledge not to privatize Social Security. Senate Democrats have tried repeatedly to bring up legislation to extend unemployment benefits, only to be blocked by Republicans.

The economic forum hosted by Democratic leaders Friday was the latest effort to change the subject from foreign affairs. Noting a report that President Bush was planning to spend much of the next two weeks campaigning for Republican candidates, Daschle lashed out at him for not giving more attention to the economy.

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“I would urge the president to cancel his political trip today,” Daschle said. “Cancel the trip. Show the American people you’re more concerned about their jobs than you are about Republican ones.”

Republicans responded by blaming Democrats for stalling bills--such as energy legislation and further tax cuts--that the GOP says would help stimulate the economy. House Republicans are planning next week to bring up legislation to expand tax breaks for investors who suffer losses.

As of now, no one knows for sure when Congress will wrap up its work. House GOP leaders want to leave at the end of next week and return for a lame-duck session in late November.

But the Senate may hold up the departure date.

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Hanging over the chamber is legislation to create a Department of Homeland Security. It has stalled over Bush’s proposal, bitterly opposed by Democrats, to waive some of the civil service protections for the new department’s employees. Under fire from House Republicans for not finishing the bill, Daschle says he hopes the Senate will act before adjourning.

Also floundering is a major bill to make it harder for people to discharge their debts by declaring bankruptcy. A House-Senate compromise was reached in July, but House GOP leaders have been reluctant to bring it to a vote because of an abortion-related provision opposed by many of the party’s conservative activists. The provision is designed to prevent people who attack or block access to abortion clinics from avoiding court-ordered fines by declaring bankruptcy.

The bill may pass during a lame-duck session, but Republican leadership aides say it will not be brought up before the elections.

The rest of the agenda of unfinished business is a field guide to issues that once seemed urgent, but have been overshadowed by Iraq:

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* Election reform. The 2000 presidential voting fiasco gave powerful impetus to legislation to fix flawed voting systems, but the effort languished for months. Now, it may be one of the few bills that clears Congress before the elections.

A compromise bill to give states more than $3.8 billion to improve their voting systems passed the House this week and will come before the Senate for final approval next week. President Bush has indicated he will sign it.

* Terrorism. Two bills that looked like must-pass measures in the wake of last year’s attacks are faltering, but may yet clear Congress in the coming week.

Legislation to provide federal financial backup for insurance companies in the event of terrorist attacks has stalled; Bush is pushing for a resolution and negotiations are continuing. In addition, lawmakers are still struggling to push over the finish line a bill to set up an independent commission to investigate government failures leading up to the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.

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* Energy legislation. The push for a new national energy policy began early last year, when California was consumed by its electricity crisis and gasoline prices surged.

The House and Senate passed bills with significant differences and, with the sense of crisis gone, it’s not clear negotiators will be able to resolve the disputes. If they do, it will surely be a stripped-down bill without major initiatives, such as the increased fuel-economy standards sought by Democrats or the significant expansion in domestic oil drilling that Republicans pushed.


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