After years of partisan impasses and legislative failures, Congress in a matter of hours yesterday passed or advanced three far-reaching bills that will allocate billions of dollars and set new policies for guns, roads and energy.
The measures sent to President Bush for his signature will grant $14.5 billion in tax breaks for energy-related matters and devote $286 billion to transportation programs, including 6,000 local projects, often called "pork barrel" spending. The Senate also passed a bill to protect firearms manufacturers and dealers from various lawsuits. The House is poised to pass it this fall.
Combined with the Central American Free Trade Agreement that Congress approved Thursday, the measures constitute significant victories for Bush and GOP congressional leaders, who have been frustrated by Democrats in some areas such as Social Security. As senators cast vote after vote in order to start their August recess, Bush applauded Congress, saying the energy bill "will help secure our energy future and reduce our dependence on foreign sources of energy."
Capping a long day of debates and roll calls, the Senate scheduled hearings for Supreme Court nominee John G. Roberts Jr. to begin Sept. 6, and voted to reauthorize portions of the USA Patriot Act, granting sweeping new powers to authorities to combat terrorism, although the chamber remains at odds with the House.
The bills approved this week won varying degrees of support from Democrats, with most of them opposing the trade pact and gun bill. The energy bill passed the Senate 74 to 26, but Minority Leader Harry M. Reid (D-Nev.) denounced it as a missed opportunity to lower gasoline prices and reduce U.S. dependence on foreign oil.
Even some senior Republicans said the transportation and energy bills passed largely because House and Senate leaders loaded them with pork-barrel projects and jettisoned contentious measures coveted by conservatives, such as opening the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to oil drilling. Congress will consider the drilling proposal separately later this year.
"Finally, by pure exhaustion, we're going to stagger across the finish line, emaciated and without much to brag about," Sen. Trent Lott (R-Miss.) said in an interview. "The only way we got the energy bill was to pick a lot of the meat out of it. This is not a particularly impressive bill."
The House and Senate have engaged in pre-vacation voting marathons before, but few have involved so much major legislation that had been bottled up for so long. Lawmakers have wrangled over the energy bill for more than four years, only to see it sink under the weight of competing priorities and regional differences. Gun advocacy groups have pushed for the liability-protection bill for four years.
Even the massive transportation bill -- usually a bipartisan favorite because it delivers jobs, bridges and mass-transit aid to so many districts -- failed to jell for two years, mainly because of quarrels over state funding distributions. The House and Senate passed it yesterday by overwhelming margins.
Lawmakers cited several factors for the breakthrough in the long-awaited bills, including high gasoline prices and a greater GOP willingness to include Democrats in the early drafting, especially of the energy bill. But some attributed it mainly to Bush's reelection and the Republicans' continued control of both legislative chambers, giving Democrats little choice but to join GOP efforts or have no say in how bills are shaped.
"They just have great cards," Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) said. "They've got all three branches of government. They've got the bully pulpit."
Yesterday's action also included Senate approval, 99 to 1, of $1.5 billion in additional spending for veterans' health care programs. The House approved the spending Thursday.
Many lawmakers viewed the energy bill -- approved by the House on Thursday and by the Senate yesterday -- as the week's crowning achievement. It provides tax breaks and other incentives to encourage new nuclear plants, cleaner-burning coal facilities and production of more oil and natural gas. It also offers incentives for the production of energy from wind and other renewable sources and to make homes and office buildings more efficient. The bill allows for enforceable rules governing the electrical grid's operation and provides tax benefits for investment in transmission lines -- efforts to improve the grid's reliability.
Virginia's two senators and Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski (D-Md.) voted for the bill. Six Republicans, one independent and 19 Democrats -- including Sen. Paul S. Sarbanes (Md.) -- voted against it.
Since his first State of the Union address in 2001, Bush has been calling for an energy policy, and he appointed Vice President Cheney to lead a task force to make recommendations. Since then, Bush has pressed Congress to enact a policy that would lower energy prices for consumers and businesses, and reduce dependence on foreign oil.
In the past year, oil prices have soared to record levels, pushing gasoline prices well above $2 a gallon. Prices for natural gas have also increased, leading to higher bills for consumers.
Analysts from across the political spectrum said the bill does little to reduce U.S. oil imports, lower prices or deal with other energy issues facing country. They said the $14.5 billion in tax breaks and other incentives will do little more than send money to energy companies, some of which already are reaping huge profits.
"This bill will allow politicians to tell voters they're, quote, doing something about high energy prices," said Jerry Taylor, director of natural resource studies for the Cato Institute, which advocates free-market policies. "And the bill also allows politicians to hand out subsidies and preferences and tax dollars to well-organized interest groups -- and that's what Congress likes to do best."
But many lawmakers said the bill will encourage the creation of fuels and electrical generating plants that emit less greenhouse gases, which have been linked to global warming. They said the efficiency provisions would also lead to lower emissions than would otherwise occur.
Sen. Pete V. Domenici (R-N.M.), chairman of the Energy and Natural Resources Committee, said that, years from now, the country will be better off because of the legislation. "I can tell you, we will be safer," Domenici said. "We will have more jobs. We will have an electric system that is safe and sound. We will have diversity of energy sources and supplies built in our country for us, spending our money, creating our jobs and many more things."
The transportation bill was approved 412 to 8 by the House, and 91 to 4 by the Senate. The bill's spending is retroactive to 2004 and runs through 2009. Virginia's and Maryland's senators and representatives voted for the bill. About $52 million of the $286.5 billion will go to mass transit. The bill will send extra funds to states that enforce tough seat belt laws, and it devotes money to combating fuel tax evasion.
Bush had once threatened to veto the bill because it spends more than he had wanted, but yesterday he promised to sign it. "I congratulate the Congress for completing a highway bill that will improve highway safety, modernize our roads, reduce traffic congestion and create jobs," he said. "I am pleased that Congress met these objectives in a fiscally responsible way and without raising gas taxes."
Four Senate Republicans voted against the bill, including John McCain (Ariz.), who decried the thousands of special projects for targeted districts. "I wonder what it's going take to make the case for fiscal sanity here?" he asked his colleagues.
The firearms bill passed the Senate 65 to 31, with 29 Democrats opposing it. Maryland's senators voted against the bill; Virginia's senators voted for it.