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Lame duck, or just lame?

THERE IS A REASON why they call the congressional session that began Monday “lame duck.” Not only does it include several Republican incumbents who will be limping away from Capitol Hill when the 110th Congress convenes on Jan. 3, 2007; but the days are also numbered for Republican control of the Senate and House.

“Lame” does not, however, mean “paralyzed.” There is bipartisan support for a postelection session in which Congress catches up on unfinished appropriations and completes work on sensible initiatives such as tax credits for research and development.

And both parties seem eager to usher in a new era at the Pentagon -- and in Iraq policy -- by holding confirmation hearings this year for Robert M. Gates, President Bush’s nominee to replace Secretary of Defense Donald H. Rumsfeld. As long as the hearings are thorough enough to clarify Gates’ views on the choices in Iraq and on the proper relationship between civilian and military authority, they should take place this year. The Senate can devote more time to scrutinizing Gates if it ignores the president’s reprise of his failed attempt to secure confirmation of the diplomatically challenged John R. Bolton as U.S. representative to the United Nations.

But divisive matters that can be left until next year should be left until next year. That includes energy legislation, which in the House has taken the unattractive form of a bill sponsored by Rep. Richard W. Pombo (R-Tracy) that would indiscriminately open up coastal areas for oil drilling.

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The best candidate for “wait till next year” treatment is the effort to legalize the National Security Agency’s warrantless eavesdropping on Americans suspected of contacts with foreign terrorists. The House-approved bill essentially rubber-stamps the program while requiring notification of Congress. But the Senate has yet to decide among three bills, all of which (believe it or not) were approved by the Judiciary Committee.

By far the best of the three bills is legislation co-sponsored by Sens. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) and Arlen Specter (R-Pa.) that would bring the NSA program under the purview of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, which was created to oversee exactly this kind of activity. (The bill would actually make it easier in an emergency for the NSA to bypass FISA’s requirements for a court order.) But even if the lame-duck Senate endorsed the Feinstein-Specter approach, there is no guarantee that a conference committee would have time to meet, much less craft a compromise that would balance privacy rights and the need for greater vigilance of suspected terrorists.

The NSA is continuing its surveillance while the administration appeals a federal judge’s finding that the program is unconstitutional. So there is no reason for this Congress to rush to judgment on a controversial issue better left to the Congress elected on Nov. 7.


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