By Debbi Wilgoren
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, December 3, 2007 5:07 PM
President Bush welcomed the Democratic-led Congress back from Thanksgiving break this morning with a stern warning and a blunt to-do list.
The president demanded that legislators authorize funding for the war in Iraq without requiring troop withdrawals; permanently approve legislation that allows eavesdropping in terrorism probes while also prohibiting private lawsuits against telecommunications companies that have provided the data; adjust the alternative minimum tax to reflect wage inflation; and pass 11 pending government spending bills without loading them down with pork.
Congress "has little to show" for the year since Democrats returned to the majority, an unsmiling Bush said. Noting that only two weeks remain before the lawmakers' end-of-the-year recess, Bush added: "That's not really a lot of time to squeeze in nearly a year's worth of business."
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) responded this afternoon, saying Democrats are working through the unfinished legislation and chastising Bush and Republicans in the Senate for failing to work with them toward compromises.
"Democrats want to work with the President, yet he continues to engage in the same tired rhetoric that does not serve the best interests of the American people," she said in a written statement. "Democrats are hard at work on a sweeping new energy policy, tax relief for middle-class Americans, and bringing our troops home from Iraq. As always, we will accomplish our goals in a bipartisan and fiscally responsible way."
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) echoed that sentiment in a speech on the Senate floor today. In his prepared remarks, he said he is "confident we can get this job done for the American people," and he blamed the president and Republican leaders with stopping progress on the legislation.
"President Bush and his Republican supporters here in the Senate determined that while bipartisanship made good policy, obstruction made better politics," Reid said. "For the past several months, we have seen an unprecedented level of obstruction."
Bush's scolding statement touched on several topics on which the White House and Congress are sparring over legislative initiatives or proposed policy changes, showdowns that could come by the end of the calendar year.
He said U.S. troops and the American public would be at risk if Congress did not take the actions he was requesting. Without passage of the military spending bill, for example, Bush said the Defense Department would need to lay off civilian employees, a task force searching for ways to defend against roadside bombs would run out of money and, soon after that, the operations and maintenance funds of the Army and Marine Corps would be depleted.
"It is time for members of Congress to meet their responsibility to our men and women in uniform," Bush said. " . . . They should stay in session until they pass these emergency funds for our troops."
Democratic leaders and Bush critics have said they are pushing for versions of the funding and eavesdropping legislation that would make the government more accountable to the public and create opportunities for the administration to begin drawing down troops.
Democrats say that troops will receive the needed money for current operations, but that a change in administration policy is necessary to ensure that U.S. forces don't stay in Iraq indefinitely. Shortly after the president spoke, Rep. Rahm Emanuel (Ill.), chairman of the House Democratic caucus, questioned Bush's priorities.
"A sagging economy has left American families struggling on the home front while thousands of American troops are risking their lives on the battlefront," Emanuel said in a statement. "This morning, the president called on Congress to approve plans for more of the same. The status quo might be acceptable to the president, but this Congress will insist on a new direction."
On the federal eavesdropping program, Bush urged lawmakers to make permanent emergency legislation that modernizes the Federal Intelligence Surveillance Act, which was approved in August. Congress has been divided over whether to shield telecommunications companies from breach-of-privacy lawsuits if they provide the federal government with surveillance data.
"The new law expires on February 1st, while the threat from the terrorists does not expire," Bush said. "Congress must stop this obstruction and make certain our national security professionals do not lose a critical tool for keeping our country safe."
Bush warned Congress to adjust the 37-year-old alternative minimum tax, which, when enacted decades ago, was intended to apply only to the wealthiest American families. But it was not indexed for inflation and now affects an increasing number of families; millions more will begin paying if no adjustment is made.
Democrats and Republicans have been sparring over how to pay for the decrease in revenue that would result from the fix. U.S. Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson says putting it off could delay the delivery of up to $75 billion in tax refund checks.
Bush excoriated Congress for enacting only one of 12 government spending bills. Congress has actually approved two bills, but the president vetoed one.
At the same time, Bush urged lawmakers not to combine the remaining bills into one "monster piece of legislation," and not to add money for pet projects in the hope of avoiding scrutiny of that spending during the end-of-the-year rush.
"Now is not the time to burden our economy with wasteful Washington spending that will lead to higher taxes," Bush said. " . . . If they send me an irresponsible spending bill, I will veto it."
The White House also announced that Bush will have a news conference tomorrow morning to discuss these and other policy issues.