The 107th Congress sputtered toward a conclusion yesterday amid disputes over its record, the tenor of political discourse and the implications of a deal to reassess several controversial provisions in the bill creating a Department of Homeland Security.
With only loose ends to tie up before the House completes the adjournment process Friday, Senate Democrats and Republicans drew sharply different interpretations of the session's failures and successes.
Brandishing a chart listing the bills that stalled or failed -- including proposals for a prescription drug benefit for Medicare, pension protection and bankruptcy law changes -- Majority Leader Thomas A. Daschle (D-S.D.) said they were blocked by Republican obstruction. "There was a lot of work left on the table," he said, "in large measure because the far right chose not to allow it to be enacted."
A couple of hours later, Minority Leader Trent Lott (R-Miss.), who will become majority leader when a new Senate is sworn in on Jan. 7, took a dim view of the record of the Democratic-run Senate. "Clearly, we've got to do better," he said. "There's no use trying to fix blame but, the fact of the matter is, a lot of important things that needed to be done were not done."
One provision in the homeland security legislation, Democrats say, will lead to the dismissal of hundreds of lawsuits filed against the pharmaceutical firm Eli Lilly and Co. by parents who believe a mercury-based vaccine additive caused their children's autism. At least four senators, including three Republicans, agreed on Tuesday to vote against a Democratic proposal to strike down the provision after Lott assured them that their concerns would be addressed early next year. But aides to House Republican leaders, including incoming majority leader Tom DeLay (R-Tex.), said today that their bosses had made no commitments.
Responding to this, Daschle said it is unclear whether DeLay will allow the provision to be dropped. Even if Congress acts, Daschle said, pending lawsuits covering 100,000 children will be dismissed in court before the new legislation can take effect. "They'll have to start all over again," he said.
Lott acknowledged that House leaders made no commitments but said he believes the changes sought by the four senators will be made. "The understanding I had with the senators," he said, "was that we were not going to let these things stand as they were."
In addition to the vaccine issue, Lott said, Congress will modify a provision that would relax a ban on issuing homeland security contracts to companies that had set up foreign tax havens, as well as a provision that would give Texas A&M University an edge in competing for a research facility on domestic security. DeLay had pushed the university provision.
On the issue of political discourse, Daschle, a target of strong conservative attacks since becoming majority leader in June 2001, said he believes political debate has taken on the "very shrill edge" of talk show hosts, provoking an emotional response from many people and an increasing number of threats against public officials. "What happens when Rush Limbaugh attacks those of us in public life is that people aren't satisfied just to listen, they want to act because they get emotionally invested," he said.
The prospects for a bill to extend unemployment benefits remained doubtful as the Senate, frustrated in efforts to reach a compromise with the House, stuck by its earlier proposal for a three-month extension. Although House Republicans oppose the Senate proposal, Democrats said they are urging President Bush to intervene on its behalf. Without an extension, benefits for thousands of jobless workers will expire on Dec. 28.
When the Senate finally adjourned, the mood was collegial and sentimental. With the agreement of both parties, 99-year-old Sen. Strom Thurmond (R-S.C.), who is retiring from the Senate after serving in Congress longer than anyone in history, presided over the Senate as it closed out its business. Senators, staff members and visitors gave him a standing ovation. "That's all," Thurmond said as he left.