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Congress Leaves Some Priority Bills Unfinished

By Helen Dewar
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, October 14, 2004; Page A29

As lawmakers straggled out of town for the final three weeks of their campaigns, a bitterly divided 108th Congress left behind a huge stack of unfinished business -- and dead bills -- on issues that had been top priorities for both parties.

Although Republicans control both chambers and the White House, the narrow GOP majorities and the high political stakes in the Nov. 2 elections combined to produce stalemate on energy, highways, welfare, prescription drug costs and an array of other issues. Serious divisions between the conservative House and more centrist Senate contributed to the impasses.

President Bush and his GOP allies were rebuffed on legislation to curb big awards from liability lawsuits and on a constitutional amendment to ban gay marriages. Democrats were thwarted in efforts to raise the minimum wage, overturn new overtime pay rules and allow the importation of cheaper prescription drugs from abroad. The Senate shunned many House-passed bills on tort reform and other conservative causes, while the House blocked a Senate proposal for Food and Drug Administration regulation of tobacco.

In a session that was more notable for its rancor than its results, Republicans accused Democrats of "obstructionism" in blocking Bush initiatives and judicial nominees, while Democrats accused Republicans of being "extremists" beholden to a conservative ideology and special interests.

The House left Saturday and the Senate on Monday, both with plans to return to deal with critical legislative leftovers.

A postelection lame-duck session, scheduled to begin Nov. 16, will be devoted mainly to the nine spending bills for the new fiscal year that Congress has not yet passed; it has approved only four. A brief preelection session could be called, probably during the third week of this month, if agreement is reached by then on sharply different House and Senate versions of legislation to revamp intelligence operations. But prospects for a breakthrough on a long list of other issues remain bleak.

"It's an uncertain political environment, and that makes it difficult to achieve legislation," said John Feehery, spokesman for House Speaker J. Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.). "Uncertainty breeds gridlock."

"This session ranks among the least productive and most contentious in modern legislative history," said Thomas E. Mann, an expert on Congress at the Brookings Institution.

The session was not without some significant achievements, especially in its final weeks, including the approval of bills to cut corporate and middle-class taxes and pay billions of dollars for hurricane, drought and flood relief. It also approved a bill making it a separate crime to kill an unborn child and legislation to expand access to DNA testing in crime cases and to provide new rights for crime victims.

A final compromise on intelligence, prompted by the recommendations of the independent commission that investigated the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, would add considerable luster to the record, although it is not clear whether agreement can be reached before the elections or by the time of the postelection session.

The 2003 session of the 108th Congress was more productive but also spotty in its achievements. It resulted in passage of the still-controversial legislation to expand Medicare to include a prescription drug benefit, approval of legislation to ban what critics describe as "partial birth" abortions and enactment of Bush's third-year-in-a-row tax cut.

But it put off action on many of the same proposals, including those on energy, highways and welfare, that wound up being killed or delayed during this year's session.

It was the second year in a row that legislation to spur energy production, once deemed a top legislative priority, foundered in the Senate, although some of its provisions -- including support for a natural gas pipeline from Alaska -- were included in other bills.

The multibillion-dollar highway and transit bill, thought to be a must-pass measure in an election year, instead got caught up in disputes between lawmakers and the White House over cost and among the states over how the money would be distributed. It remained in limbo as the elections approached.

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