Congress starts again, with rancor

Times Staff Writer

After a monthlong summer recess, Congress returned to work Monday with dim prospects for agreeing on ways to address the nation’s energy problems, the foundering economy or long-term funding for the federal government.

Instead, the 110th Congress appears headed for adjournment next month with more finger-pointing and much business left for the next Congress to tackle in January.

Under the shadow of the impending fall election, the partisan rancor that has consumed much of this Congress resumed as party leaders borrowed from the same rhetoric they were using on the campaign trail.


In the first floor speech of the new session, House Majority Leader Steny H. Hoyer (D-Md.) promised to highlight GOP responsibility for rising unemployment, stagnating wages and the skyrocketing federal debt, noting Republicans have controlled the White House and Congress for six of the last eight years.

“This month, we will be holding them to account,” Hoyer said.

Hoyer’s Republican counterpart, Minority Leader John A. Boehner of Ohio, quickly shot back, criticizing two years of Democratic control of Congress.

“They have had the opportunity to lead,” he said in a statement. “Instead, they have stumbled and fumbled, producing little but embarrassing ethical lapses and political posturing.”

Many Republicans see political advantage in casting the first Democratic Congress since 1994 as a “do-nothing” institution, while Democrats look toward next year when, as polls suggest, they could hold larger majorities.

Some lawmakers held out hopes for progress in the waning days of the Congress.

The Senate moved toward approving more military spending. And lawmakers hope to put more money in the federal highway trust fund to make up for declining gas tax receipts.

At the same time, a bipartisan group of senators continued to work on a compromise energy bill to expand offshore drilling, repeal tax breaks for oil companies and boost federal support for other energy technologies such as lower emission vehicles and liquefied coal for transportation use.

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) said Monday he hoped to hold votes on the energy proposal and others next week.

But obstacles to an energy compromise remain high, along with hopes for agreements on a new economic stimulus measure or the federal budget.

In the increasingly acrimonious House, the two parties have been locked in a bitter showdown over energy for months.

Democrats have signaled a willingness to lift a moratorium on drilling if plans were tied to measures repealing oil industry tax breaks and requiring that utilities generate electricity from cleaner energy sources.

But Republicans, who threw this year’s appropriations process into chaos by trying to force drilling provisions into spending bills, renewed their calls Monday for an up-or-down vote on lifting the drilling ban.

The two parties also remain at odds over a second economic stimulus package.

Congress in February passed a two-year, $168-billion package that sent rebate checks to millions of Americans.

Now, Democrats are eyeing a package to provide $50 billion or more for bridge and road projects, home-heating assistance and other aid, including a possible extension of unemployment benefits.

But the Bush administration, which opposed some of these proposals earlier this year, has not embraced the idea of second package. A presidential veto likely would doom the package.

Lawmakers may pass a stopgap measure to fund the government for at least part of next year, but congressional leaders have given up on passing most annual spending bills until there is a new president.

Negotiations between the White House and congressional Democrats have begun over emergency legislation to continue funding the federal government when the fiscal year ends Sept. 30.

But even stopgap funding may be threatened by the continuing showdown over energy issues. In recent days, several House Republicans have talked about blocking any funding bill that extends the moratorium on offshore drilling, raising the specter of a government shutdown.