Congress returned yesterday for a frantic preelection push to reorganize intelligence agencies and grapple with a huge stack of unfinished business on issues including taxes and energy -- a task complicated by battles for control of the White House and both houses of Congress.
With only a month remaining before Congress's planned Oct. 8 adjournment, prospects for passage of major legislation appear bleak, with the possible exception of the intelligence reorganization, which many lawmakers are pressing to pass, at least in part, before the Nov. 2 elections.
President Bush is expected to lay out his plans for the intelligence legislation at a meeting today with senior lawmakers.
The first order of business, however, is hurricane relief for Florida, a pivotal state for the presidential race. Both the House and the Senate plan quick approval of a $2 billion aid package, with hints of more to come. The Senate approved the measure yesterday, contingent on the House also acting this week.
Both houses also plan early action on their backlog of spending bills for next year: homeland security for the Senate, and education, health and social services for the House. Congress has passed only one of 13 bills needed to fund the government next year, a $417 billion bill to fund military operations. Most of the other bills are likely to be rolled together into an "omnibus" spending measure at some point, possibly in a post-election session.
During this week's work on spending bills, Senate Democrats are expected to push for more homeland security funding in critical areas, and House leaders expect debates on amendments dealing with overtime rules, Roman Catholic hospitals that refuse to perform abortions, and public schools that distribute "morning-after" pills to sexually active girls.
In addition, Republicans scheduled votes in both houses this month that are designed to please conservative supporters and give Democrats political heartburn. The House will vote on a constitutional amendment to ban same-sex marriage, which was defeated earlier by the Senate. The Senate plans to vote on amending the Constitution to bar desecration of the American flag, which has failed before in that chamber.
In the Senate, Democrats tried to seize the initiative on intelligence by challenging Congress to act, before it leaves, on all 41 recommendations of the national commission that investigated the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, including but not limited to its recommendation for a powerful new national intelligence director.
"Every day that Congress spends not doing the 9/11 recommendations is a day we ignore the threat and neglect our solemn duty as leaders," said Senate Minority Leader Thomas A. Daschle (D-S.D.).
A bill to approve all the commission's proposals was introduced in the Senate by John McCain (R-Ariz.) and Joseph I. Lieberman (D-Conn.), and a similar bill is scheduled for introduction in the House.
Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-Tenn.) also gave high priority to the intelligence initiative and called for the swift confirmation of Rep. Porter J. Goss (R-Fla.) as CIA director -- but he did not go as far as Daschle did in demanding action on all the commission's proposals. Frist spokeswoman Amy Call said the Senate will consider all 41 recommendations but not necessarily act on all of them.
In the House, GOP leaders dismissed the McCain-Lieberman bill as a "rubber stamp" of the commission that leaves little room for congressional ideas. They said a "leadership bill" will be introduced by the end of the month, probably by Speaker J. Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.).
House Majority Leader Tom DeLay (R-Tex.) told reporters after a GOP leadership meeting that the eventual House bill will address all the major issues raised by the commission but will not adopt all its recommendations. Asked if there is a consensus on giving a new intelligence director broad budgetary powers, DeLay replied: "Not even close. We're going to do it right."
At a meeting of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence yesterday, the commission's vice chairman, Lee H. Hamilton, said he withdrew the panel's proposal that the new national intelligence director be part of the executive office of the president, citing opposition from both the White House and Congress. But he and commission Chairman Thomas H. Kean said they hope Congress will take some action on a "framework" for reorganization during the current session.
Most other legislation left hanging when Congress began its six-week summer recess remains in limbo, including a long-stalled measure to address the nation's energy needs and billions of dollars for highway, bridge and transit projects.
House and Senate Republicans have narrowed their differences over funding for transportation projects, but the Bush administration has refused to budge from a spending limit that is regarded as too low by some key Republicans in both houses.
The energy bill has gotten snarled in a dispute over proposed liability protections for producers of MTBE, a fuel additive found to have contaminated groundwater. A compromise has been suggested to use gasoline tax revenue to compensate communities that have been contaminated, but it is not clear whether the proposal has enough support to break the energy deadlock.
Lawmakers will also attempt to resolve differences over tax legislation, including a corporate tax package as well as a bill to extend several "middle class" tax breaks, including relief for married couples and an increase in the tax credit for families with children.
The corporate tax measure includes a proposed tobacco compromise that would compensate growers for abandoning Depression-era production allocations while authorizing the Food and Drug Administration to regulate tobacco products.
Staff writer Walter Pincus contributed to this report.