The Senate gave final approval yesterday to long-stalled legislation to expand access to DNA testing for rape victims and prison inmates, as Congress struggled to finish pre-election work on tax cuts, disaster relief and other high-priority issues.
Meeting in a rare weekend session, the Senate also approved a scaled-back plan to strengthen its handling of intelligence policy and funding. Across the Capitol, the House approved $57.5 billion in new spending for domestic counterterrorism, military bases, and relief for hurricane victims and farmers, while also taking a first step toward the construction of a natural gas pipeline to tap energy riches in Alaska's North Slope.
The House went home to campaign after yesterday's session, and the Senate hoped to wrap up its work, including final passage of a huge corporate tax-cut bill, today or tomorrow. Both bodies could return later this month if a compromise is reached by then on legislation to reorganize the nation's intelligence operations. A post-election lame-duck session is also planned in mid-November.
The Senate approved the DNA bill by voice vote as part of another measure to expand the rights of crime victims, and the House agreed to a minor change, also by voice vote. The legislation goes to President Bush, who is expected to sign it, according to Republican aides.
The bill seeks to ensure post-conviction access to DNA testing for death row and other prison inmates who claim innocence and authorizes $350 million in new funds to improve the quality of legal defense in capital cases. It also authorizes $755 million over the next five years to help clear the backlog of more than 300,000 rape kits and other crime scene evidence awaiting analysis.
"This is a groundbreaking crime bill that will allow us to unleash the evidentiary power of DNA," said Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Orrin G. Hatch (R-Utah), who, with ranking committee Democrat Patrick J. Leahy (Vt.), led the fight for the bill in the Senate. Leahy called it a "rare example of bipartisan cooperation for a good cause."
In voting 79 to 6 to approve its intelligence oversight plan, the Senate rejected some of the more far-reaching proposals of the Sept. 11 commission and substituted its own, less painful, changes. It expanded its Governmental Affairs Committee to include homeland security, eliminated term limits for members of the Select Committee on Intelligence, expanded the panel's powers and created a new appropriations subcommittee on intelligence.
But it rejected the Sept. 11 commission's proposal to give the committee control over spending as well as policy for intelligence or create a House-Senate committee on the subject. Turf-conscious senators also refused to give the new Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee jurisdiction over some major operations, including the Transportation Security Administration, Coast Guard and Secret Service.
The changes constituted the "most significant" congressional reorganization since the 1970s, said Senate Majority Whip Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), who, with Minority Whip Harry M. Reid (D-Nev.) led the reorganization effort. "These are sweeping and significant changes," Reid said.
Critics, including Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), disagreed, describing the changes as falling far short of the commission's call for major reform as essential to the success of the broader intelligence restructuring. The commission said current congressional oversight of intelligence is "dysfunctional."
The House has not yet approved changes in its intelligence oversight operations.
The Senate also gave final approval to the 2005 defense authorization bill, including a 3.5 percent pay raise for uniformed personnel, another $25 billion for military costs in Iraq and Afghanistan, a go-ahead for a new round of military base closings and rejection of a leasing deal with Boeing Co. for refueling aircraft.
After days of backroom bargaining, the House yesterday approved two major spending bills, one funding the Department of Homeland Security and the other military construction projects in 2005.
Riding along on the $10 billion bill funding military housing and bases was $14.5 billion worth of relief for businesses, individuals and government facilities affected by the recent hurricanes in the South, as well as emergency aid to farmers and ranchers suffering from drought and other weather-related losses.
At the insistence of GOP House leaders, the $2.9 billion in farm aid will be offset by comparable cuts in agriculture conservation programs, a move that brought a bitter attack on the floor yesterday from Democratic senators.
The separate $11.6 billion hurricane relief package will benefit citrus, vegetable and cotton farmers in Florida and other southern states, but that aid will not be offset by cuts elsewhere in the farm program. Democrats charged that election-year politics was behind the different treatment of the aid to Florida agriculture.
"It makes no sense," said Sen. Tom Harkin (D-Iowa). "They take it out of one pocket and put it in another."
The Alaska pipeline provisions, added to the military construction bill, authorize up to $18 billion worth of government loan guarantees to transport gas from the Arctic to U.S. and Canadian markets. With its oil reserves declining, Alaska is looking to natural gas to underwrite its economic future.
For Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska), who is in a fierce reelection battle, the approval of the authorizing legislation before the Senate adjourns to campaign is especially timely. But the legislation stops short of providing the pipeline builders with the key incentive they have said they need to move ahead.