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Events Stir the Agenda in D.C.

Times Staff Writer

A mounting military death toll abroad. Growing government debt at home. Massive power failures in the Northeast. Raging forest fires in the West.

All that tumult, rocking the nation and the world while Congress enjoyed a monthlong summer recess, is reshaping the agenda lawmakers face as they return to work this week.

The big blackout added momentum to energy legislation that has languished for months. The wildfires in Montana and elsewhere have fueled demands for passage of a White House plan to thin forests. Fresh projections of big budget deficits have cast a shadow over efforts to provide costly drug coverage under Medicare. And growing costs and casualties in Iraq are generating new questions about U.S. plans there.

Intensifying the pressure on Congress is the assumption of many lawmakers that chances of crafting major legislation will rapidly diminish once the 2004 presidential campaign kicks into high gear.

“Medicare and energy are clearly the two biggest items out there that need to be settled before this year is over,” said Rep. Roy Blunt of Missouri, House Republican whip.

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With polls indicating that Bush’s once-stratospheric approval ratings have dropped, some Democrats see a new opening for their party -- and for Congress as a whole -- to more greatly influence domestic and foreign policy.

Citing the polls, Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.) predicted that lawmakers from both parties “will play a more important role” in shaping these policies.

The GOP has remained united behind Bush on most battles, but Republicans have begun to break ranks on some issues -- most obviously new federal rules that would allow big media companies to control a larger share of the nation’s television markets.

The administration backs the rules approved by the Federal Communications Commission, but a congressional move to block them enjoys bipartisan backing from lawmakers opposed to further consolidation of media ownership. A Senate vote on the measure is expected within two weeks; the House voted in July to overturn the rules.

But the most important question looming for Bush is what Congress will do about his top domestic and foreign policy priorities -- Medicare reform and the stabilization of Iraq. Neither is a sure thing.

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Legislation to overhaul Medicare -- and its expansion to include a prescription drug benefit -- has passed the House and Senate, but the two bills differ in important respects. The House bill, which barely passed on a party-line vote, goes much further than the Senate toward one of Bush’s key goals: giving private health plans a larger role in Medicare in an effort to increase market competition and control costs. The Senate bill, which was approved by a wide margin, allows a stronger continuing role for the federal government.

Congressional staff members met in August to discuss less-controversial differences, with mixed results. Tentative agreement was reached on providing drug discount cards to the elderly during the transition to a full prescription drug benefit. But talks were disrupted last week by a feud between Senate and House Republicans over health care in rural areas.

Senate Finance Committee Chairman Charles E. Grassley (R-Iowa) ordered his staff to boycott several meetings because he believed aides to House Ways and Means Chairman Bill Thomas (R-Bakersfield) were not paying enough attention to provisions that would expand Medicare benefits in rural areas, a major issue in Grassley’s home state.

GOP aides say they expect the storm to blow over when lawmakers return. But it indicates the thicket surrounding even seemingly tangential provisions of the massive legislation -- making it hard for some on Capitol Hill to see how agreement on a final bill can be completed any time soon.

A key question is how far GOP negotiators will go to make the bill acceptable to Democrats, who were crucial in passing the bill in a narrowly divided Senate. Kennedy, who was among those who voted for the measure, said that Bush will have to insist that House Republicans give ground on their push to expand the role of the private sector if the bill is to pass.

“Unless the president is prepared to stand down his right wing, we won’t get a bill,” Kennedy said. “The only way we can get a bill is if it is bipartisan.”

The effort to finish work on the measure, which will cost an estimated $400 billion, was not helped by new projections from the Congressional Budget Office predicting that the federal budget will run record deficits in 2004 -- and remain in the red for years to come.

Many conservative Republicans have supported the Medicare bill reluctantly, expressing concern about the long-term cost of creating the prescription drug benefit. Growing deficits will make it harder to win support from some of these Republicans, senior GOP strategists say.

Political momentum behind the Medicare bill also may be slowed if the experience of one House GOP leader during the summer break turns out to have been widespread.

“My constituents have mixed feelings [about the Medicare bill], because many already have better prescription drug coverage,” said the leader, who asked not to be identified. “I don’t see the same public sentiment [in favor of the bill] that I thought I would see. That, in combination with the deficit numbers, makes me less certain it is a slam dunk.”

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Concern about growing deficits also should figure in the debate on the U.S. commitment to rebuilding Iraq. With violence in that country continuing, lawmakers will be confronting afresh the reality that the United States is facing a long, costly involvement in Iraq, with little support from other nations. Many members of Congress already have urged the administration to work harder to expand other countries’ involvement in the operation.

“Many members will come back asking, ‘Why can’t we internationalize the situation?’ ” said Rep. Rob Portman (R-Ohio), who is close to the Bush administration. “You won’t hear Republicans saying we should pull out,” he said, but they will ask, “ ‘Can’t we bring in more help from other countries?’ ”

U.S. policy on Iraq is likely to come under particular scrutiny when the administration requests more money for operations there. Trent Duffy, spokesman for the Office of Management and Budget, said no decision has been made about when such a request would be sent to Congress.

Rep. Jim Kolbe (R-Ariz.), chairman of the House appropriations subcommittee that funds most foreign aid programs, is urging the administration to submit the request as soon as possible so it can be thoroughly reviewed. He also said it was “too early to tell” whether congressional support for the administration’s policy has been weakened as a result of the ongoing tumult in Iraq and the lack of international support for the reconstruction.

“I hope not,” he said. “Failing is not an option.”

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Turmoil closer to home -- the mammoth blackout of mid-August -- has increased GOP hopes that Congress can finish work on pending energy legislation before year’s end.

The House and Senate passed different versions of the bill, which has been a Bush priority for more than two years. The legislation’s overall goal of expanding domestic energy production enjoys broad support, but disputes over how best to accomplish that have stalled action.

Blunt, the House Republican whip, said the blackout improves chances of getting an energy bill this year because it illustrates “what happens when we continue to fail to move forward on a fixed and defined energy plan.” He added, “We don’t expand our capacity, even though we continue to expand our use.”

Meanwhile, supporters of Bush’s proposal to curb wildfires by thinning forests hope that the Senate will be spurred to action by the summer’s blazes. The House has already passed such a bill.

“Every day when you turn on the TV, some other state in the West is on fire,” said Doug Heye, spokesman for Rep. Richard W. Pombo (R-Tracy), chairman of the House Resources Committee. “We hope that it does put extra heat on the Senate to act.”

Another preoccupation for the returning Congress will be the unglamorous but essential work of writing 13 spending bills that are needed to keep the government running in the fiscal year that begins Oct. 1.

The Senate this week will take up the bill financing education, health and labor programs, which gives Democrats an opportunity to attack Bush’s budget as too stingy. They also plan to propose an amendment to block administration rules that would reduce the number of workers who qualify for overtime pay.


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